A Visionary on Visionaries: Steve Nelson on Rock's Finest Legends at the Boston Tea Party Club.
History Speaks at the Music Museum of New England
Steve Nelson, the acclaimed manager of the Boston Tea Party Club, booked bands emerging to stardom in their early days. There were also out of town acts that weren't as popular, but if they were different, he'd book them too. A manager, producer and music fan himself, Steve went to great lengths to track not just the famous acts, but the ones with potential - vision.
The Boston Tea Party Club
The Boston Tea Party Club opened as a rock music hall on January 20, 1967. It was once a Unitarian meeting house, converted to a theatre showing underground films, and then was bought by Ray Riepen and David Hahn to be converted to a concert venue. Word of mouth was, and perhaps still is, the best way to communicate who moves the fans in any medium; music, books, art, theatre. For live music, Steve would hear new bands at Club 47 or other clubs here in the North East, and book them at the Boston Tea Party Club. "Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf ... " Who knew they'd not only be hot acts in their time, but change the course of music history forever? Steve did.
The lists of local and famous acts who played at the Boston Tea Party Club in the late 1960's seems endless. Many of these bands will be featured on the Museum Museum of New England if they contain ties to the region. The short list includes: The Velvet Underground, Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The J. Geils Band, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, The Allman Brothers Band, Joe Cocker & the Grease Band, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Dr. John, The Buddy Miles Express, Charlie Musselwhite, Jeff Beck, The Who, The Byrds, Santana, Taj Mahal, Ten Years After & Sly and the Family Stone. If you can believe it, the cost of admission at the time ranged between $3.00 and $3.50 a show, although The Who exacted a premium for their performance of Tommy, charging $4.50!
The 40th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party Club in the South End marked reflections of rock's greatest legends, when they were just starting to lay down their tracks. Steve Nelson and his community of producers, managers and music historians are gearing up to track these bands back to their roots. There is a Boston Music Trail in the works that will mark special origins of places in Boston which are special to music,for example, the Aerosmith apartment and the Boston Tea Party Club. It is supported by the well known regional fundraisers, Music Drives Us.
Decades after leaving the Tea Party Club, Steve has started an on-line museum of photos, shows, interviews and mementos of these great artists who've grown from the roots of New England soil at least 15 years ago.The Music Museum of New England started running in 2007. It has a 33-1/3 LP logo on the site for good reason. Steve put it there for good reference, 'and it even spins at exactly 33 1/3 rpms ...'
"No new acts, " he says, "They have their own publicity." Music Museum of New England documents only the classic bands. "That's our job," says Nelson.
On Led Zeppelin
Steve told the story of his connections to Led Zeppelin:
We were in Gothenburg, Sweden one night and went to an afterhours club. Who did we run into, but Jimmy Page! I had just booked him at the Tea Party in April for what turned out to be the Yardbirds' last American tour. So he said, "Hey man! What's happening? What are you doing in Sweden?" He was playing a few dates in Denmark and Sweden with his new band, then called the New Yardbirds, before debuting it in London, and introduced us to his new lead singer, a guy with a big mop of curly blond hair named Robert. We had just missed one of the first-ever performances of the band which was soon renamed Led Zeppelin.
Zep played The Boston Tea Party Club in January,1969 on their North American tour. They only had one hour of music, and had played at the Filmore West." They were done with their set after an hour and people were pounding, 'more, more, more!' - so they played a three hour set.
On The Velvet Underground
Our first contact with Steve Nelson was- sadly, through the passing of Lou Reed. When the Iron Horse Music Hall did a tribute to Mr. Reed, Nelson gave the opening comments on his personal experiences with the productions of the Velvet Underground at the Boston Tea Party Club and other local venues in the North East.
Steve recalled the first time he saw the Velvet Underground at the Village Gate, a famous club in NYC. It was a private party and he noted that bands just came on without announcement. He stated he'd seen a lot of bands, but the first experience of the Velvet Underground was "so overwhelming."
Not that it was loud, but the power of it, the rhythm of it and intensity of the band was just overwhelming. They didn't have any glam or strobe lights, just this performance stayed with me - for a long time. I didn't know who they were at the time. One year later, I saw the 'banana' album and figured out that maybe "this was the band." They were so different than anything else I'd heard at the time ... I bought the record, took it home and said, "Oh yes! THIS is the band that I saw! Their sound was overlapping, influencing, and unique - like Zeppelin blues - if you look at something Led Zeppelin would do - hearing a sound you've never heard before is something you never forget. I think it was something equivalent to me, like hearing the Beatles for the first time. The sound was different than anything you'd hear like that. Then, through a friend, I lived in Boston at the time, and was invited to see them play at the Boston Tea Party Club. I went to the show and still have the handout from that night.
Steve went to law school with one of the club owners who approached him with an opportunity to run the club. He knew that "I knew the music" and would be in
it for that and not just the money. "He also knew that I knew the legal part of running the business. It was a great opportunity, so I said yes! And this is
when I really started to book the band and that's when I got to know them."
The Velvet Underground stories go beyond the Tea Party Club. The South Deerfield Auction House could hold a few hundred people and Steve knew the music revolution of that time would be open to VU. Booking was tough, as venues changed quickly without notice. VU was scheduled at the Paramount Theatre and the gig fell apart twice. Steve explained, "For their early years, the Boston Tea Party Club was The Velvet Underground's 'home club.'" In the cultural context of Boston at that time, the city was a "tough, dingy place" and the Velvet Underground found it an escape from the Andy Warhol/NYC trappings of their metro image in New York. As successful as it was, the Factory brought a 'package' for the VU to be boxed in to when they play in New York. But just a few hours North, the band could be themselves, and play just like any other club. "It was liberating for them to play at the Tea Party - musically ... " During the an MC5 show, a member of their posse (John Sinclair, a so-called White Panther) exhorted the crowd to trash the Tea Party and denounced charging people money to see shows. During this event, Lou stood up and said this was his favorite place to play. The bootleg from that venue became VU's " Guitar Amp Tape."
On Lou Reed
Steve appreciated the commentary by BBR writer, Gio Pilato, on Lou Reed.
One of the greatest rock photographers of the last half century of music, my fellow Italian friend Guido Harari (which created Lou's cover of Animal Serenade) once said of Lou: "I lived my friendship with Lou with extreme simplicity; Lou said once "If people just knew how normal I am in my everyday life, all the fascination about me as an artist would vanish". http://www.bluebirdreviews.com/nest-news/music-news/499-gio-pilato-on-lou-reed.html
"If people really knew how normal Lou was ... Lou Reed was just a regular guy. I was trying to tell people that for years ... because obviously they had this image of him as incredibly dark and almost evil ...I mean Lou was a real artist ... " There was so much feeling and intensity in Steve's eyes when he said this, I felt like I was sitting with Lou Reed himself. Steve said Lou was describing what he observed, but did not embody the scene itself. "People made the mistake of thinking Lou was like the characters in his songs - he wasn't ... "
"If people think that Lou Reed was all of those characters, that is like thinking that Stephen King is a murderer because he writes murder mysteries ..."
I observed that Lou was writing and verbally painting pictures of the people around him, the people he encountered in the NYC music scene. Some of them clearly named, not even metaphorical. They were at the Factory and Sterling, Lou's guitar player was a regular guy too and they had to find a drummer, so Mo, Sterling's sister was a drummer and she became "it."
She had antecedents in her day too, she always talked about Bo Diddley and Olatunje, the African drummer, who had drums of passion were Mo's influences at the time. He was a popular drummer back then, had an album called, "Drums Of Passion."
BBR: There were not too many women drummers back then.
Steve: "In rock, nobody." "Other than Helen Copton and her 42nd Street girls, laughs." There were a couple of orchestras that had all women musicians, kind of like the movie "Some Like It Hot" where they were trying to disguise themselves as male musicians, but they were all women bands and they were trying to hide out." But I never saw a female drummer in rock back then, not that I was aware of.
We agreed that there sometimes was a sort of 'boundary violation' between Reed and his fans. They fused the characters he sung about with who he was as a person, dismissing his role as an artist, for the satisfaction of projecting who they wanted him to be so they could observe it more intensely. In some ways, Reed's successful embodiment of the scene he described through his music was an outpouring to his talent, but without a social boundary from the public, to allow him distance from the subjects of his songs, his individuality was often misunderstood by fans.
Steve and I talked about how the way the influence of Lou Reed continues was fascinating, and it seems to be getting stronger. The 'shock value vs. describing' what he saw in a very direct way communicates a plain beauty to the listener - something no one can deny. We discussed poetry, interviews with Lou's partner and Lou's own poetry, photography and political commentary that was a validation of his artistry on many levels.
BBR: I read in an interview that Lou said he wanted nothing to do with the 'trash' of punk.
Steve said this was not exactly a realistic assessment, because Lou's rail against overproduction of music was the very definition of punk. Perhaps Lou, in making that statement, wasn't denying the musical form of punk, but the conventional and predictable goth image that early punk rockers seemed to portray. In a sense these bands who wanted to emulate Lou, not realizing that this was actually not his true identity. By over identifying, they were losing their individuality to the black eyeliner 'punk uniform' which is opposite of what the punk era was supposed to do. Defying ALL expectations is the freedom of punk, which means exploring your interests to their limits. Fitting yourself into yet another black leather jacket, metal rings and spike hair styles could become as restrictive as molding to any other authority suit that you are despising.
BBR: "One of fascinating aspects of Lou that I have been reading about is his relationship with the poet, Delmore Schwartz."
Steve: Yeah, that goes back to his training at Syracuse University. Sterling was a student there too. It goes to show you that there were a lot of literary influences on them, which I think was pretty unusual. They were primitive, raw and covered a wide range for their time. Many people think literary artists are aloof and pretentious. They have these influences and wear them on their sleeves and it's - too much. But Lou was able to incorporate the lyrics and ideas directly into what he was doing, to make them more accessible to the general audiences. The lyrics and the stories they were telling - they were there for the fans to know as well.
BBR: Many general fans look toward Lou Reed for a dark side, but if they listen to the lyrics, there is a lot more to discover. I think in time, listeners will find there is still so much to explore in Lou's (VU) music. It is always evolving.
Steve: If you look at the evolution of their four albums, in the first and second albums, they were very dark, more experimental murder mystery and things like that. And then you get into after John Cale left, when Doug Yule came on, he brought more of a musicality to it which had a softer edge to it.
Steve: Just like his songs, the span of "Sweet Jane" vs. "Pale Blue Eyes" that stuff kills me, it's just great. You know I always thought, that some great country artist, could take "Pale Blue Eyes" and make it into a country song and it would be a "giant hit."
BBR: (delighted) OH YEAH! I wouldn't have thought of that!
Steve: The whole you know ... "the fact that you are married only proves you're my best friend, and it's truly, truly a sin"... It's something so incredible ... if you take Lou Reed out of it - look at it - listen to it - it's like a really classic country song! I'm sorry that didn't happen ...
BBR: It's a great idea, what an ear you have!
Steve: Sterling Morrison was the totally great unsung guitarist of all time. And a lot of stuff he is doing, even in the context of hard core Velvet Underground stuff, sometimes you can't separate that music from Lou, but if you get Lou out of there - he is playing some hard core country stuff, rockabilly and rock and roll. The thing that made VU so interesting is that it had so many complex elements to it. Try and pick out Sterling's guitar, you hear it, he's playing so many things at once. He is into rockabilly and rock and roll, and he ended up living in Austin Texas for years. So he is much more into country music now. And I don't mean "schlocky" music ... I mean quality country.
BBR: Kind of how the Replacements are influenced by Hank Williams.
On Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and the Social Context of Music Legends
Speaking of country songs, of all musicians mourned, Hank Williams, how he died too soon! I believe the punk world may miss him the most, as the Replacements' tribute to Slim Dunlap demonstrated how much the free spirited music styles have drawn from his influence.
Steve commented that he loves Hank Williams' "very poetic, but very simple" lyrics. He wouldn't be surprised if Sterling lived up to Williams' classic style someday, which says a lot about how esteemed he sees Sterling in the evolution of music today.
What Do You Want The Readers To Know About Lou Reed?
Steve: He is a real person.
BBR: Was he warm, friendly, talkative? Shy quiet? When he showed up at the venue, what was he like to work with? He had such a presence.
Steve: Well, he wasn't warm and talkative, but if you got beyond that and could relate to him as a person, you'd know him. But not many people had that opportunity. He wasn't 'Mr. Nice Guy' though, it would be a mistake for me to say that. He did have an edginess about him.
Meet The Press, Lou
BBR: I watched some interviews of Lou, completely outsmarting the press - even at a young age. He completely outsmarted the journalists trying to interview him, because he knew there was a falseness.
Steve: Well, many famous musicians, like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, well, they did the same thing. Those people are being very serious - yet they saw the irony of it - Lou was such a great observer of people in the social milieu. Seeing how people are reacting, and at the time, with the glam and the whole Warhol vibe, the gender identity, people thought they were just a bunch of freaks, the mainstream people had to grapple with all of these issues in a different way. This challenged people.
Are you smart enough to write about Bob Dylan?
Reminiscing on music's greatest change inspiring artists, I confided in Steve something I've been saying here and there for a long time. I've wanted to write about Bob Dylan, but just don't feel like I am smart enough. He agreed - and I wasn't insulted.
He agreed that musicians who are 'that brilliant' like Dylan, Lennon, shouldn't be analyzed, "just enjoy them, " he said. We talked about Moog pioneer, composer, Wendy Walter Carlos (1968)("Switched on Bach") and how every musician at that time impacted the way that we hear and expect to hear, music today.
Steve: There were many social movement songs he has written, a lot of Dylan's songs were "love songs, songs about relationships."
BBR: I've seen him twice and I still can't put words to those performances.
Steve: Where did you see him? When?
BBR: Both times that he was recently here at UMass.
Steve: I've seen him in Pittsfield, among seven other times.
BBR: I remember listening to him on the radio, as a kid. I would listen to WABC and WNBC (in the 1970's), to me, as a kid, he was a singer on the radio. I didn't think of him as a political figure until I was older and realized how vast his catalog was - and how he challenged the public in the context of the times.
Steve: Well, that was much later. He was a folk singer. A pure folk singer. It's funny, I had a similar experience with Bob Dylan when we had just seen him in 1963. I must have heard something that made me go see him at Club 47, so I went to this show and people come up and do two songs. So Joan Baez introduced this guy and I didn't catch what his name was, but he played songs that were so overwhelming and you go, "Oh my God, who is this guy?" And then I found out later ... who Bob Dylan really was ...
BBR: I hear of artists who are either complimented or criticized, because they are trying to be like Dylan. That's why I went to see him. I can't really be a reviewer unless I've gone to the source. I couldn't write a review after seeing him. I didn't have the words to describe it because it wasn't what I expected - to see him live, I didn't know what to expect. So I had no ability to 'report' on it. No words. I saw Bob Dylan. That's the whole of it. I saw Dylan.
Steve: I've seen him live, several times, some way further back.
BBR: Recently, too, his voice has changed.
Steve: Dylan's voice? (laughs). What did you notice about his performance?
BBR: He didn't address the crowd the first time I saw him. His back was toward the audience and only interacted with his band. But he had a great band. It was like an orchestra - and he was the conductor.
Steve: He has great musicians.
BBR: The band was amazing - excellent. The harp? Excellent. Fantastic. It was like watching an orchestra, gorgeous musicianship. I respected what he was doing, but I didn't expect it to be so formal, I guess. So this experience, the confusion of it, made me need to see him again. And the next time I saw him live, I got tickets even closer to the stage. He was interacting a little bit the next time. Introduced the band, told people not to put their cellphones on. We were all dancing - even people in the rafters.
Steve: That's great.
BBR: It was nice. When I was up in the bleachers at the Mullins Center, the crowd was stark. But down on the floor seats, everyone was groovin' - and that was cool and seemed more like a folk vibe. The bands I interview for the website, they all respect Dylan. But he is untouchable, you know.
Steve: Just enjoy it. One of the things I really like about no longer being a music promoter, is just to be able to go to a show and just dig it.
We discussed the triumph of Dylan, coupled with the politics of the time. The public was freed from the authority of restrained ideas via musicians who were independent thinkers and first artists. On this path, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan had similar burdens. As Lou Reed was often confused with the characters he portrayed in his music and cast to carry the face of dark underground, Bob Dylan, for a time, was trapped in a role as the political voice of his generation.
In sad irony, Dylan individualism was so inspiring to the public, that they limited Dylan's own exploration of his ordinary. When Dylan plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, he genuinely lost fans - and friends, because he was suddenly 'part of the establishment.' Yet, this act, brave with risk and rebellion with in his social context, changed the expectation of rock music for other artists. These points of time in listening history merge into memories, but to the artists' credit, we should not call them 'iconic.'
I'm Set Free!
Steve urged me to embrace The Modern Lovers' catalog with Jonathan Richman. It has the same straightforward sound that we all love about Lou and VU. The drummer for the Modern Lovers, David Robinson, did become drummer for The Cars, and the Lovers' keyboard player Jerry Harrison did the same for Talking Heads. The Cars, and bands of this time, The Talking Heads, The Sex Pistols, quickly became a refreshing outlet for fans to connect with their own individuality through music. David Bowie's influence on Reed, his artistry and glam shock rock style, gave Reed a boost in the flash ratings with the public. Reed walked this wild side for a while, but his true underground was his every day sense of self. In the song, "I'm Set Free" Steve Nelson muses that Lou Reed wrote those lyrics to make a statement that he was free to head up the band in his own direction after John Cale left. The rest of the stories are music history for the listener to interpret.
In every interview, live show, recording, our aim is to learn something new. This article brought home the hope of how small beginnings in local music can change the course of music history and perhaps social history too. In order for this to happen, however, fans need to remain vigilant to the fact that their favorite hero artists are individuals who are constantly evolving too, as they are. If we box in our favorite musician to a sound, identity and role, then we short change their creative process and ultimately our own.
Hear VU Live
Just released is a 2CD package of The Velvet Underground live at The Boston Tea Party in Dec 12th, 1968. Steve was at the show and designed the poster promoting the performance, which made a great CD cover.