The Story of Richie Havens and Woodstock


Dad loved Richie Havens. So much so that he named his longtime show after one of his records. And they were friends. Richie gave us a cool blurb for our Woodstock book. Today’s post is an excerpt, written by my father, from our book, BACK TO THE GARDEN. Please contact me via the comments if you’d like a copy, I’ll make you a good deal 😉. .

It is 5:07 p.m. on Friday, August 15, 1969. You are standing on the stage in the far end of the cow pasture’s natural amphitheater. The stage is set, and you can smell the fresh lumber used for its recent construction. As you look out in front of you, a sea of bobbing heads stretches for miles. It is a wave of humanity unlike any in the annals of recorded history. Certainly, the crowd is unusual for its size and more so for the ostensible reason all these people are here—for a unique type of American music barely fourteen years old called rock ’n’ roll. If you accept the crowd estimate of five hundred thousand, that makes it the second-largest city in New York.

Richie Havens: We were back at the hotel. I was supposed to go on fifth and there was no way to get anyone there. There wasn’t gonna be a Woodstock, to tell you the truth. It was gonna be the world’s largest riot, because seven miles away were all the musicians in two hotels, and they couldn’t get to the site at all—no road to get there. And no one could carry tons of amps and equipment down to the stage from seven miles away.

Michael Lang: It was a question of who we could get on the quickest, who was ready, and who needed the least preparation and the least gear. Tim Hardin was an idea. He wasn’t ready. Tim, I think, was a little blitzed, a little too blitzed. He was a friend, and I was hoping that playing at Woodstock would bring him back, because he had been blitzed for a while. And I thought it would be a good opportunity for him to get his shit together, and straighten up long enough at least to get some public recognition. But he wasn’t ready.

Richie Havens: Tim Hardin was there, but he decidedly refused to go on first. He was not coming out from under the stage.

Chip Monck: Tim was absolutely unable to fathom or to deal with the fact of opening the show. He couldn’t be presented without some help. So he politely declined.

Richie Havens: All of a sudden, they said, “Richie! We’ve got a guy with a helicopter who’s gonna come over. You’ve got the least number of instruments, so you’ll go over first.” I said, “Okay, fine.” Then he came back and said, “No, he’s not coming,” then “Yes! He is coming!” Now the concert is three hours late already and in the Holiday Inn driveway comes this little helicopter right outside my window and I hear this noise, so we run out with our two conga drums, two guitars, and the three of us, and we hunch into this bubble helicopter and they took us over.

Michael Lang: Well, Richie was scared, frankly, as I recall. But I think that was a kind of natural reaction to looking at a crowd of that size. But he didn’t make it a problem.

Richie Havens: I actually was afraid to go on first. I knew the concert was late and that maybe it would be a little nuts. I didn’t want to be trampled by a billion people. So I said, “Don’t do this to me, Michael. I’m only one guy. My bass player isn’t even here.”

Richie’s bass player, Eric Oxendine, got caught in the traffic jam leading to the site, and decided to walk the fifteen or twenty miles from where the traffic was stopped dead to the stage. He would have made it in time for Richie’s set if the order hadn’t changed, but that was not meant to be. Lang continued to beg, plead, and cajole. Richie relented and walked out on stage.

Chip Monck: And suddenly, it was show time. I said, “Sit down, stand up, do whatever you wish to do, but we’re ready to start now and I bet you’re pleased with that. And, ladies and gentlemen—please—Mr. Richie Havens.”

He was twenty-eight years old, dressed magnificently in white trousers and a long, flowing orange caftan. Richie Havens was born on January 21, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a product of that borough’s rough and tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood who somehow escaped the dead-end fate of many of his peers and schoolmates in part because of his devotion to music and the arts. He moved to Greenwich Village at the dawn of the ’60s and made his living as a portrait artist and poet. For a while, he lived down the hall from Noel Paul Stookey who was performing as a solo musician-comedian at clubs in the Village before joining forces with Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers and rewriting American music history as the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Stookey befriended Richie and encouraged him to flex his musical muscles. They’ve remained lifelong friends.

Richie took the advice and began transforming his poems into songs, which he performed to great acclaim and growing audiences throughout the rest of the decade. One major factor that helped Richie gain an audience was the change happening on FM radio. When FM radio came into being, every AM station simply used FM to simulcast its programming. But in 1966, the FCC mandated that the FM signal must broadcast something different. This led to more creative, progressive stations playing the hipper music of the day and gearing their freeform programming to a decidedly younger crowd. One of the early favorites on these so-called “Freak-quency Modulation” stations was Richie Havens. His invitation to perform at Woodstock was a no-brainer.

Josh White: Richie Havens was quite popular at that time. He was a folksinger in the tradition of Leadbelly and Josh White—the other Josh White. He was a favorite on freeform radio stations. He was a very good and impassioned singer, and he was one of the earliest black folksingers who developed credibility with this white audience. The audience loved him.

Mike Jahn: One of the reasons I decided to go to Woodstock was that Richie Havens was going to be there. Richie and I were friends, and I figured if he was going to be there, I could be there. I knew him back in 1966. Somebody gave me a copy of Mixed Bag and I loved it. I got in touch with him and met him in his apartment in the East Village. He took me to Slug’s, a legendary jazz club, and I was probably the only white man in the place. There was some animosity with the guy at the door. He didn’t want to let me in, but Richie said, “He’s cool,” so he let me in. So we went in together to see Sun Ra. Richie was such a sweetheart.

Stan Schnier: When Richie was doing shows at the Fillmore, he didn’t have a road crew. There was a guy named Dino who played backup guitar, and Dino used to come over to our apartment all the time and jam with us. It was a very small world then. Funny enough, most of the time when he and Richie were on stage, you couldn’t even hear Dino, because Richie sang and played so full and loud and Dino was kind of in the back, twiddling. It wasn’t a defined rhythm-lead relationship. It was just something that they had between them that kept Richie locked in. I never saw anybody like Richie before, and I haven’t seen anybody since. He was totally unique.

Tom Law: I met him through Albert Grossman. I’d see him when I was working for Peter, Paul and Mary. I think he’s one of the most soulful people on the planet; I put him at the top of the list.

Billy Altman: I saw Richie Havens open for Cream in the fall of 1967. He was somebody I was familiar with. A great performer. His energy was impressive. He used a tuning where his guitar was tuned to a chord and it allowed him to do all these great rhythmic things. And that made him the perfect act for that point at Woodstock. He was able to get people into the music physically, because of how rhythmic it was, and that’s not something a lot of people could have done.

Mike Jahn: As a performer, Richie was magnetic and charismatic. He had an amazing rich sound, and he used that open E tuning on his guitar and it just sounded amazing. He had huge hands. Piano player hands. You can’t bring your thumb around over the bass strings and bar the strings unless you have immense hands. His voice is very expressive. Here’s a comparison that most rockers will hate, but hearing Richie play “San Francisco Bay Blues” was on the level of hearing Streisand’s rendering of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Taking an old jolly-time tune and making it into something entirely different. It blew me away. He is a wonderful talent.

You can’t talk about Richie Havens without discussing his ability to perform covers—to interpret other artist’s material. At a time when most of his contemporaries were dismantling the notion of being handed other people’s songs to record and perform by the A&R (artists and repertoire) man at the record company, Richie clearly had it going both ways.

Billy Altman: He was a great singer and a great interpreter also. There aren’t many people who can do Bob Dylan as good as Bob Dylan, or even half as good as Bob Dylan, and he’s one of the few people who’s always been able to do a great job with Dylan’s material. And I say that with the utmost respect. The same is true with the Beatles. Even with songs that you wouldn’t necessarily think would be open to that kind of interpretation like “Here Comes the Sun.” He is able to find things in songs and make them his own. That’s what Richie Havens does.

He wasn’t the opening act; he was the opening “act-cident.” The good luck charm. The omen that in some way everyone at the festival backstage, on stage, and in front of the stage hoped could make you believe that everything was going to be all right. He did his job and he did it magnificently. He was the perfect candidate to spark the flame to light the fire that would burn brightly and tangibly for almost four straight days. His peace-love demeanor and childlike jargon definitely set the tone for the entire weekend of hippie chic:

Richie Havens from the stage on August 15, 1969: A hundred million songs are gonna be sung tonight. All of them are gonna be singing about the same thing, which I hope everybody who came, came to hear, really. And it’s all about you—actually—and me and everybody around the stage and everybody that hasn’t gotten here, and the people who are gonna read about you tomorrow. Yes! And how really groovy you were—all over the world, if you can dig where that’s at—that’s really where it’s really at!

The lightness of his spoken message was in direct contrast to the unrelenting power of his music and his message. He did “High Flying Bird,” the lead-off track from his stunning Verve-Forecast debut album Mixed Bag. He did Gordon Lightfoot’s “I Can’t Make It Anymore.” He performed a trilogy of classic Beatles songs, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Hey Jude.”

Richie was well past the twenty minutes he was expecting to play, but even after double that amount of time, then triple that amount of time, there was still no sign that anyone wanted him to come off the stage. Nobody frantically giving him the “cut” sign, so he surmised, correctly, that his follow-up wasn’t ready yet. He soldiered on. Literally.

His searing performance of the antiwar song “Handsome Johnny,” cowritten with the then-folksinger, now Academy Award–winning actor Lou Gossett Jr., once again brought the crowd to its feet. Having accrued enough show business savvy to leave them clamoring for more, Richie attempted, once and for all, to leave the stage. It was not to be. Pushed back out once again to face the roaring crowd, Richie looked squarely into the eyes of a moment of truth that few performers in any of the arts ever face. And then it just came to him—an instance of otherworldly creativity that simply defies expectation, but not imagination.

Richie Havens: Two and a half hours—two hours and forty-five minutes later, as I walked off the eighth time, they said, “No, no one’s here yet, go back.” [Laughs.] For the seventh time. I decided I didn’t know what else to sing, you know, it’s like everything I could think of, you know? So, I really had an inspiration. I looked out over the audience, which I could not see the end of because what most people don’t see in the movie is, as far as you could see people in the picture that they show, when I’m on stage, there was the other side of that hill that was equally as large. And the people on that side of the hill never even saw the stage; they just lied down in the field and listened, and that was probably the best sound. It could be heard fifteen miles away actually. Best sound I ever played outdoors, in that sense. But the thing was that I was on stage and I didn’t know what to sing, so I—I looked out and I said, you know, “Freedom isn’t what they’ve made us even think it is. We already have it. All we have to do is exercise it. And that’s what we’re doing right here.” So I just started playing, you know, notes—trying to decide what am I gonna sing and the word came out, “Freedom,” you know. I started singing “Freedom.” And then, of course, “Motherless Child,” which I hadn’t sung in probably seven years—six or seven years, came out. And then there was another part of a hymn that I used to sing back when I was about fifteen that came out in the middle of it. “There’s a telephone in my bosom and I can call him from my heart.” And—that’s how it came together.

Arthur Levy: He used to perform with his eyes closed. I didn’t know if he did that because the amount of sweat he generated stung his eyes or if he just had to block out the audience. It was certainly the largest crowd he’d ever played to. It could have been very daunting and intimidating to perform to that number of people. “Freedom” is one of the great transcendental moments in rock history.

Bob Santelli: Havens saved the day. The manner in which Richie plays, hard strums, open tunings that would allow him to play the guitar as if it were some kind of weapon, as if the notes and the chords that would come flowing out of his guitar were meant to disable any doubters. This is the kind of acoustic music that was ideal for an outdoor setting, especially to kick off the festival. He rose to the occasion. Look at the intensity in Richie Havens’s face and match that with the intensity of his guitar playing and then the rhythms of his conga player. This was a powerful and driving rock band, and he was creating it with a guitar that seemed to have vengeance in mind in some way, shape, or form. It was a powerful performance and it was very lucky that it occurred because there wasn’t a whole lot else that was as compelling or as intense on Friday as Richie Havens.

It couldn’t have started off any better. There are many characters from all facets of the festival who have laid claim to or been given the title “Father of Woodstock.” Some are certainly worthy of the sobriquet. But, more than most, Richie Havens can wear that mantle with pride and dignity and humility. At this writing, he is still the greatest living embodiment of the Woodstock ethos.

On the occasion of this fortieth-anniversary milestone, Richie is still recording, still touring, still painting, still acting, and still making his voice heard on a variety of issues as he completes his seventh decade on the planet. I’d like to illustrate his generosity and commitment with a personal observation. In the 1980s, after the death of singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, I cohosted an annual twenty-four-hour fund raiser at the United Nations for World Hunger Year [now WHY HUNGER], the charitable organization cofounded by Harry and my friend Bill Ayres. On the afternoon of the broadcast, Richie came by to perform and lend a hand before a scheduled concert that evening on Long Island. He sang, he talked, he played, then he left for his gig. That was it. I put it out of my head and moved on to the next guest. At about three o’clock in the morning, the really dead hours of a twenty-four-hour Hungerthon, there was an unexpected knock on the door at the UN. It was Richie! He had taken a collection for World Hunger Year at the concert and brought the proceeds back with him to the city after the show! That is the ethos of Woodstock!

Richie’s performance crystallized and clarified the real underlying reason these half a million people have gathered together here in the single-word clarion call repeated over and over and over again, and

screamed right back at him by the throng, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom . . . !”


One From the Vault: Tom Harkins Interviews Pete Fornatale in 1994

K-Rock’s Pete Fornatale – Much More Than a CD Babysitter
(Originally written as a “Personality Profile” class assignment for Dr. Yvonne Stam at Kingsborough Community College’s Journalism and Print Media Program in 1994.)

By Thomas Edward Harkins

Since the day he first manned the microphones at Fordham University and projected his friendly voice forth in search of an audience, Pete Fornatale has been a familiar, comforting presence on the New York City airwaves. From his professional debut at WNEW FM 102.7 in 1969, Fornatale has provided an escape for his listeners, in four hour increments, as he’s guided them through an often tumultuous quarter century that has seen six presidents, two Woodstock festivals, two “wars”, thousands of albums, concerts, benefits, bands, and more births and deaths than anyone cares to remember. Through it all, Fornatale, and the music that he loves, grew and prospered.

One of Fornatale’s first professional radio assignments was a commercial for the original Woodstock festival. Listening to that voice from the vault today, one can hear that although the cheerfulness has remained, the youthful exuberance of the summer of ’69 has been replaced with the seasoned veteran’s knowledge and wisdom. Pete, as mellow as he’s always seemed, has mellowed further still with experience. At 49, Fornatale is much more than a disc jockey. He is a devoted husband and father of three upstanding and personable sons. His wife, Susan, is a schoolteacher who is as devoted to her work as Pete is to his. He is a thrice-published author, a lecturer, as well as a board member and lifelong devotee of Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres’ charity organization, World Hunger Year. He is also one of the most vocal proponents for the preservation of folk music in the country.

Spending time relaxing with his family is every bit as important to Fornatale as his work, and that is where we spoke with him last. We were sitting in a second floor room of his sister-in-law’s home in Port Washington, Long Island. Laughter and good smells came wafting up the stairs as his large family gathered in anticipation of their traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The irony and pressure of interviewing a man who makes his living interviewing some of the biggest names in rock n’ roll weighed upon me, but Fornatale soon put this novice interviewer at ease, reminiscing over framed family snapshots before getting down to the business at hand.

So, we wondered, how has the role of professional disc jockey changed over the last 25 years? In the golden days of vinyl, disc jockeys were “much more involved in the selection of the music” than they are in today’s pre-programmed world of computer printouts and laser discs. The hands-on selection and freedom of musical choice is clearly an aspect of radio that Fornatale misses. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just a babysitter for the CD player”, he says. It sounds sad, however, Fornatale still finds enormous satisfaction in the putting together of his weekly program “The Sunday Show”, which he tapes on Thursday afternoons, right after his normal 10AM – 2PM slot.

Years ago, radio stations played a much wider range of musical styles than today’s specialty stations. The Top 40 lists of years ago were all-inclusive; you were just as likely to hear the crooning of Frank Sinatra, as you were the blistering rock piano of Jerry Lee Lewis or the melancholy blues of Billie Holliday. Today we have radio stations that cater to every imaginable musical taste: hard rock, soft rock, easy listening, country, classical, as well as all-talk, all-sports, and all-news. We asked Fornatale if this was a trend he saw continuing, or would there be a reversal? “Yes,” he said, definitely continuing. “It’s an economically driven, ad driven trend.” In fact, the whole focus of radio has changed so much, the term “broadcasting” is no longer applicable. “We used to call it broadcasting,” said Fornatale, “today we call it ‘narrow-casting’.” Because, he explained, radio stations are targeting narrow, select audiences, and gearing their advertising toward particular demographic groups.

We wondered if a man who loves rock n’ roll music as much as Fornatale ever had the urge to pick up an instrument and add to the pool of rock n’ roll himself. Fornatale says he “just missed his opportunity”, when he toyed with the idea learning the piano at age 19. He never learned, he says, because at 19, he felt it was “too late” to pick up the skills. “Just think,” he says, “I would have been playing piano for thirty years now!” A distinct possibility, when you consider that Fornatale’s sons have shown evidence of musical talent. “Mark is an excellent guitar player,” he says of his 18-year-old, though “the working of a guitar is still very much a mystery to me.”

From its very beginnings, rock n’ roll has been attacked by the establishment from every angle. Religious fundamentalists and so-called “moral majorities” have pointed their fingers, calling rock n’ roll, by turns, wild, overtly sexual, drug oriented and even satanic. On the other hand, from Bangladesh to Live Aid to Farm Aid, we have seen the good things rock is capable of. We asked Fornatale if rock n’ roll was a unifying force for goodness, inherently evil, or just entertainment. “It depends,” he told us, “on the purpose of the event, the group, or the writer.” Just as in every other form of expression, Fornatale says there are examples of rock n’ roll he feels are “destructive”, negative, but he says that it is wrong for critics to make “blanket statements” about any art form. Clearly, for Fornatale, the goodness in rock n’ roll greatly outweighs the negative aspects. “Bruce Springsteen,” for example, he says, is a positive force in rock n’ roll”, citing Springsteen’s legendary generosity to noble causes, including World Hunger Year. Every year, “The Boss” donates one of his autographed guitars to be auctioned off for the “Hungerthon”, as well as a substantial amount of cash to WHY.

Rock n’ roll isn’t the only fish in the musical sea, though. There is a musical form that’s been around almost since time began, and is as close, if not closer to Fornatale’s heart, and that is folk music. We asked Fornatale why folk music is so important for those of us who’ve passed through “the television age” and entered the computer age. “Because, more than anything else, it’s the music of the people,” he said. “It is the best example of the ‘melting pot’ concept that we have. It’s like, what was it that David Dinkins used to say . . . ‘a gorgeous mosaic.’ Folk music”, says Fornatale, “encompasses musical influences from the four corners of the world.” Fornatale grows nostalgic as he cites the examples of the values and traditions that were passed down from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Arlo Guthrie, and to his children and Pete’s grandchildren.

Of the many hats worn by this musical historian, the hat of author is one he has donned three times over the course of his multi-faceted career. His three books are “The Rock Music Source Book”, “Radio in the Television Age”, and “The Story of Rock n’ Roll.” Naturally, we were curious if Fornatale was getting that urge to write again, as it has been seven years since he last published a book. As it turns out, Fornatale does have a few irons in the literary fire, but nothing definite or immediate. Among the ideas he’s kicking around is a book based on his old, nationally syndicated radio feature, “Rock Calendar.” He also expressed a desire to collaborate with his good friend Bill Ayres on a book of “The 100 most important songs; not the most financially successful songs necessarily,” he says, “but the songs that have had the most significant impact on their audience.” He said they would explore the issues surrounding the songs, the people who wrote and performed them, and the effect each song had on the listening public. If all this sounds very serious and “heavy” to you, fear not. Fornatale does have a sense of humor about him too. In the days preceding Woodstock II, Fornatale was marketing a humorous t-shirt called “Dogstock”, which depicted a festival of canine rock n’ rollers. “It was supposed to be called ‘Woofstock’, but someone beat us to the copyright,” he said. Nevertheless, Fornatale plans to re-issue the shirt “once the warm weather returns.” And this man, who professes a low tolerance for puns, is actually considering doing a rock n’ roll history book written in “dog terms.” We bet “The Beagles” and “Joe Cockerspaniel” can hardly wait. It’s enough to give men “paws.” Enough!

We had seen the history, literature, family values and nostalgia of Pete Fornatale, now we wanted to know about the charitable, crusading side. We asked Pete about WHY, and his relationship to the group’s co-founder Bill Ayres. “In the beginning, the mid-seventies, WHY survived because Harry Chapin would donate the proceeds from every other concert to the cause. It was a fifty-fifty split.” Fornatale said that when Chapin passed away, WHY almost went under. “They don’t accept donations indiscriminately,” says Fornatale. “If a group’s philosophies are not in keeping with the ideals of WHY, they will decline the donation.” Fortunately, WHY co-founder Bill Ayres had made a pact with Harry to continue the organization for as long as one of them was still living. Happily, in the years since Chapin’s passing WHY has grown steadily, and the annual Hungerthons, which followed Fornatale from WNEW FM 102.7 to 92.3 FM K-Rock, have taken in more money each year. “Hungerthon ’94 was the most successful ever,” says Fornatale. “We took in $450,000, just $50,000 short of the goal hurdle half-million, but $125,000 more than last year.”

25 years, we reminded Fornatale. He has been a friendly, familiar presence in the homes, automobiles, and workplaces of generations of listeners for over 25 years. In all that time, we wanted to know, what were some of the highlights? What made him proudest, and how long did he see himself continuing in his medium? As long as Dick Clark or Casey Kasem have in theirs? Rock n’ roll isn’t just for teenagers anymore. At the mention of Clark and Kasem, Fornatale rolled his eyes and pretended to bury his head in his hands, laughing. Then he grew thoughtful.

“It’s been a real privilege to be involved and identified with a group like World Hunger Year,” he said. And, as for defining moments, “Introducing Crosby, Stills, and Nash to the General Assembly of The United Nations. Standing at that podium, I could just feel the history in that room.” Going a little further back, “Introducing The Beach Boys’ free concert in Central Park in 1978,” a concert which Fornatale co-organized with the late Dennis Wilson. And more recently, Fornatale says, “hosting Paul Simon’s free concert in Central Park on HBO in 1991,” was another highlight. Fornatale says he’s not as knowledgeable about, or “emotionally connected to” some of the newer rock n’ roll, but he feels that classic rock as it stands will “follow us right off the planet.” He allows that “the possibility exists” that he’ll keep doing what he does well into senility,” though he isn’t entirely sure. “I’ll be 50 soon,” he says, “and you reach a point where you have to consider what you’d like to do with the time you have left. There’s still a lot to be done with World Hunger Year.”

25 years in the public ear, and a lifetime of memories to show for it. Pete Fornatale is clearly a man with a few rows left to hoe, a few stones yet unturned [ed note: no pun intended!!], and all the indications are there that he, and the classic rock and folk music that he loves, will be with us well into the next millennium; a friendly voice for the future, the future of New York radio, the future of freedom, and the future of the spirit of rock n’ roll.

Rock Calendar for March 29: Life Imitates Art

On March 29, 1973, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show appeared on the cover of The Rolling Stone following the success of their single of the same name.

Here’s what former Rolling Stone editor Chet Flippo had to say about this about this clear case of life imitating art.

CHET FLIPPO: That song came out of left field. Shel Silverstein wrote it. And when we heard it, we knew what they were doing. We kind of laughed and we said, “These guys down here are trying to con us, obviously.” And then the song took off and we said, “Well, we gotta do it.”” People expected it. So we whipped up a frothy little article and said, “OK, Dr. Hook, here’s your cover.” And they laughed because they knew what they were doing. It was a game and both of us played it. The odd things is, a few years later I got a call from Dr. Hook’s management and they said they were ready for the cover again and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Dr. Hook appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone on this day in 1973.

Here’s the song as immortalized in Almost Famous. . .

Editing Your Dad


In my own life’s personal FAQ, near the top would be “What was it like editing your dad?”

My answer, without fail: “The guy was a real pain in the ass.”

But the truth is it was a great experience. It started one day in 2007 when we sat in a beer bar in New York with our friend and literary agent Frank Scatoni. Frank had grown up listening to Dad and he shared a vision of him having another act in his career as a rock historian — this time on the page. Dad and I had already done a book together when I was editing for Rodale, but the idea was that this time I’d get even more involved, as more of a hybrid editor/co-writer (my specialty). Within a few months we’d sold BACK TO THE GARDEN: THE STORY OF WOODSTOCK. And a couple of years later, with a big push from another friend, Bernie Corbett, we got the Stones book off the ground. Truth be told, Bernie was the MVP of the Stones book. It wouldn’t have happened if not for him. And I am eternally grateful to both Frank and Bernie for their roles in these two books. I can honestly say my life wouldn’t be complete without the opportunity to work on them with Dad.

It’s not easy to translate a skill set from one medium to another, and that was always the challenge with Dad. For all his abundant knowledge of music, as a radio guy, Dad loved what could be described at best as pithy one liners and at worst bad puns. A lot of our editorial disagreements were over these. I toned him down but gave him plenty of rope as well. As he once told me, “I know some people find wordplay annoying but it’s really the closest thing to a style I have.” That statement was overly self-deprecating, I think, but there was certainly some truth there. At times, I thought the wordplay worked well, especially when it fit perfectly into the narrative. Like the last line of our Simon and Garfunkel book, “and that’s how the Bookends book ends.”

That first book together was tricky. Like a lot of first-time narrative authors, Dad fell in love with his research, and I had to use a lot of red in pruning those early drafts. It’s definitely an odd thing, having to “correct” your father. But to his credit, he’d read over what I’d done and understand why I did it. “I have a good editor,” he would tell people who complimented the book. And his style adapted and improved.

Over time, Dad developed a real talent for writing narrative on the page. I think after years of editing radio interviews he was finally able to make the leap to how to do the same thing for a book. There’s an art to it. Oral histories can be dull if not clipped properly, getting bogged down in too many words when a few will do. Dad intuitively knew when and where to put himself out front, and when and where to pull back and let the voices of other people flow, or to just fill the space with a perfect transition. He was like Charlie Watts with a laptop.

For the 50 Licks section on the Stones in 1969, we divided up the material because there was just so much there. He took the lead on some of it, I took the lead on the rest. I still believe the work he did, particularly on the transitions, blows away my more workman-like material in those chapters. After reading an early draft, he told me I was being too hard on myself and my stuff was just as good. I just needed to plug away, go over them again, and fill in a few placeholder sentences. In the end, I might have been a good editor to him, but he was a great editor–and friend–to me.


How’s that for a spammy headline?

First order of business, I’d like to direct you to the excellent site run by Alex Belth, Bronx Banter, who is running a fairly lengthy excerpt from our book today about one of the most intriguing chapters in Stones history. If you read one blog post today, let it be over here.

That’s too nice a treatment for me to compete with in this space, so instead we’re going to run a little contest. The winner gets (what else?) a free copy of 50 Licks. Here’s the question. Take a look at this photo. Ignore the two mopes in the foreground. . .

pete and bernie final

The location where it was taken is significant in rock ‘n’ roll history for two reasons. What are they? Private email your answers to 50LicksContest[at}gmail[dot]com. I’ll allow a week for answers. In the event of more than one winner, I’ll choose one entry at random.

Uncle Pete to the Rescue! (GUEST POST) by Thomas E. Harkins

Concert Sticker from WPLJ 1

Peter Thomas here, just to introduce my cousin, who will tell a tale from his childhood, entitled . . .

You Can’t Always Get What You Want . . .

. . . and when you were a fourteen-year-old boy in 1981 the thing you wanted most in life was concert tickets. All right, that may be a bit of an exaggeration; suffice it to say the youthful lust for concert tickets was always in your top three.

Sadly, my friends and I had thus far been stymied in our efforts to attend a rock concert. A friend’s older brother promised to take us to see Kiss in ’77, but Mom had other ideas. “Kiss? You’re ten years old! Besides, you’re not going anywhere with that kid – he’s an idiot!” Two years later, we heard Led Zeppelin was going to tour in support of their album, “In Through the Out Door.” Surely, this was IT! We were going for sure. Then we heard the devastating news. Led Zeppelin’s drummer, Jon Bonham, had died, and the band was officially packing it in. There would be no tour.

But things had changed. This was “The Eighties!” We were high school freshman who had just learned that The Rolling Stones were coming to town. Tickets were going on sale any minute! Our only obstacle was that the shows were “mail-order only”, which meant we just needed one of our parents to let us borrow their credit card and we’d be in! Who was it going to be? We looked at one another expectantly. Anyone? Alas, we never got to see The Rolling Stones that year either.

I was nearly 15, and I had gained my parents’ somewhat grudging permission to begin attending concerts. I knew Black Sabbath was booked to play Madison Square Garden shortly after my birthday. Unfortunately they were sold out, and I was becoming frustrated. “Why don’t you ask ‘Uncle Pete’?” suggested my mother. “He got your father and I John Denver tickets that time.” That’s right! Pete Fornatale, the legendary disc jockey, was married to my mom’s first cousin, Susan. He was a nice guy. What did I have to lose by asking? I called Pete and explained my dilemma. Pete sympathized and told me that he’d ask around the radio station and see what he could do.

A couple of days passed. Then, late one afternoon, the doorbell rang. It was Pete. Even though he lived in Port Washington, Long Island, he had driven all the way to Dyker Heights, Brooklyn from the WNEW-FM studios in Manhattan to hand me, a fourteen-year-old kid, Black Sabbath tickets – for free! It wasn’t Led Zeppelin, and it wasn’t The Rolling Stones, but it was a real, live concert at Madison Square Garden by a band I really liked. Finally, I was going to be there. And so it came to pass, back in the autumn of 1981, that Pete Fornatale, a legend in the world of rock and roll radio, went out of his way to initiate me into the wonderful world of live concerts. It was a moment that would change my life; a moment I will never forget.

Ticket Stub

(Thomas Edward Harkins 2/6/13)

The Rolling Stones: Live From Fifth Avenue

For today’s blog post, I am going to run a little unedited excerpt. Think of this is as a DVD Bonus Feature. This is one of my favorite pieces in the book, a first person selection written by my Dad. The chapter is called “The Last Time.”

The Stones roll down Fifth Avenue, as shot by the great Bob Gruen who was running alongside the truck!

The Stones roll down Fifth Avenue, as shot by the great Bob Gruen who was running alongside the truck!

All I knew when I went to work on Thursday. May 1st, 1975, was that sometime during the lunch hour of my 10am to 2pm radio show, I would be handing the baton to Scott Muni for remote coverage of a press conference announcing the upcoming Tour of the Americas by The Rolling Stones. As always, rumors and anticipation of a forthcoming Stones sighting was generating a lot of buzz (was that term in use in 1975?) and rabid fan interest. A press event to address the facts about all of this was scheduled for noontime at The Fifth Avenue Hotel. At the appointed hour, I turned on the mike after playing It’s Only Rock and Roll, and informed the audience that we would be switching over to our live, remote coverage of the event.

To my surprise, and I’m sure to the surprise of my listeners and most of the people in attendance at the actual press conference, noted comedian Professor Irwin Corey (who billed himself as “The World’s Foremost Authority”) strolled to the podium and proceeded to deliver one of his patented, incomprehensible monologues. (By the way, at this writing, he is 97 years old and still doing his brand of guerrilla comedy on the streets of New York!). His shtick was familiar enough to generate some laughs, but it did leave the roomful of hardnosed journalists scratching their heads, wondering what the hell was going on. Until -that is – a voice from the back of the room announced that everyone there should spill out onto Fifth Avenue for a “surprise.”

Scott Muni took to the air outside the hotel and sputtered (from an actual air check of the event): “…..Eh, Dave Herman is here….and here comes the truck now into view….and they’re going to be….Yep, they are! There’s Mick Jagger…and The Stones….They’re all here! Now YOU hear the sound! Let’s pick it up!”

The music had already started in the background, but now it was coming through loud and clear. The Rolling Stones were playing live on a flatbed truck rolling slowly south on Fifth Avenue in New York City! They performed an elongated version of Brown Sugar with Billy Preston on electric piano AND a new face (no pun intended) playing guitar. As the song ended, Muni returned to the air:

Scott Muni: “Alright, the truck is pulling away. And we’re being crushed! Literally crushed! Mick Jagger has just thrown out the announcement of the tour…”

Dave Herman: “The New York dates will be on….5 days in New York….”

Scott Muni: “We’re out on the street now, and it is raining, and has been….”

Dave Herman (incredulously): “The Rolling Stones playing on Fifth Avenue….on Fifth Avenue!”

Scott Muni: “The Rolling Stones playing on Fifth Avenue….and did you notice who the new member was? I think that’s most significant. Ron Wood was on guitar….Now let’s go back to Pete in the studio.”

I was flabbergasted!

I’m sure people actually there couldn’t believe their eyes, and I know people listening to the radio couldn’t believe their ears – because I was one of them! This was radio as theater of the mind at its best. I could “see” and hear Mick Jagger and The Stones in my imagination, and it was all quite special and wonderful.

But here’s another perspective from the eye of the hurricane – Bill Wyman:

Bill Wyman: “The truck, yeah. (laughs) I don’t know whose idea it was. Probably Mick’s – he always comes up with these bad ideas that work. But it was quite fun to do. The sad thing was, when it came on TV they said we obviously weren’t playing live – we were miming to a record. Now that was very annoying because we were playing live! It was raining and we were taking the risk of being electrocuted to death!”

After all was said and done, Mick gave full credit for the stunt to Charlie Watts.

Mick Jagger: “I think it was actually Charlie’s idea. Jazz in the old days in Harlem….they used to do promotions for their gigs on flatbed trucks.”

Photo taken in April 2012, at Bob Gruen's studio of Dad, Bob Gruen, Peter Thomas Fornatale (rocking an OTB T-Shirt), and Jeremy Rainer

Photo taken in April 2012, at Bob Gruen’s studio of Dad, Bob Gruen, me, and Jeremy Rainer