The Great Lig in the Sky
By Barney Hoskyns
(This piece was originally published in Rock's Backpages.)
On Memorial Day weekend in May 1973, over a hundred of the leading rock writers of the day flew into Memphis, Tennessee, for 72 hours of music, discussion, and drunken disorderliness.
The First Annual National Association of Rock Writers Convention, as ‘twas billed, was a hair-brained $40,000 scheme dreamed up by record company publicist John King and neophyte scribe Jon Tiven, who helped assemble a list of attendees that included Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Cameron Crowe, Stanley Booth, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches and other illustrious/notorious contributors to the pages of Rolling Stone, Creem, Fusion, etc. From the UK, meanwhile, flew a posse that included future rock-prof Simon Frith and Pete “Family Trees” Frame. Allegedly there was even a critic from Mexico present.
Here, in the reminiscences of many survivors of the RWC, is the true story of that never-to-be-repeated weekend--a story of beer, call girls, Elvis, and a thrilling performance by rock-critic darlings Big Star.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Steve Simels (writing in Stereo Review, 1973): A lot of people really have no use for rock critics. In fact, some cynics have suggested that The Day The Music Died was the day an undergraduate named Paul Williams first conceived the idea for the original Crawdaddy! But by now it hardly matters what one thinks about the rock press. For better of worse, like rock and roll itself, it’s seemingly here to stay.
Andrew Tyler (Disc):  1973 was a time in which the big record companies sucked up to rock writers and staged ever more gaudily expensive stunts to arrest their attention and grab some editorial. The Rock Writers convention was an example, posing as rock anthropology.
John King (Ardent Records publicist and convention organizer):  I’d always loved music publications and I’d always appreciated writers. They had passion and they knew so much more than me.
Steve Simels (1973):  The convention was the brainchild of the New Haven Rock Press' Jon Tiven, who at eighteen may be said to typify the second generation of rock critics. Tiven wrote a rave review in Fusion of Big Star’s #1 Record, which delighted the people at Stax subsidiary Ardent Records.
John King:  Tiven was almost as hyper as I was. He was somewhat assertive, some might say aggressive. It was strictly Stax money that we used to pay for the convention. Black artists weren’t represented all that well in the white press, so I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for writers to see Stax and other things. I just came up with the idea, and I legitimized it with the name "The National Association of Rock Writers." I wanted Big Star showcased, but I wanted it to be as level a playing field as I could. John Fry of Ardent thought I was nuts.
Ed Ward (Rolling Stone/Fusion et al):   The idea of the convention was that Stax Records was taking a huge leap forward out of the funky soul biz and signing rock acts in conjunction with their new studio, Ardent, which also had a label. Ardent had signed Big Star and Stax had signed British band Skin Alley. They then took a buttload of money and flew loads of writers to Memphis to promote all of this under the aegis of helping rock writers get together and form a union, something some actual writer may have suggested at some point.
Pete Tomlinson (from liner notes to 1978 release of Big Star Third):  A couple hundred of rock’s tastemaker elite waltzed their outsized egos through three days of mostly pointless discussion and light tourism.
Cameron Crowe (Creem, Circus)::  The mood was fun, with rock writers allowed to act like rock stars in an all-expenses-paid sanctuary. It was an opportunity for many of them to live out their own version of the stories we'd been writing--out of control rock stars on the road. It was a noble effort, revelatory in the level of comraderie that developed between people who'd only been bylines to each other.
Ken Barnes (Phonograph Record):   I was most pleased to get the invitation to the convention, seeing it as a chance to maybe meet some of the people I'd been reading in Phonograph Record, Creem, Rolling Stone, Fusion, etc., and see an exotic, fabled city.
Nick Tosches (Creem et al.):  I remember that the plane from New York made a stop in Kentucky, and Richard Meltzer and I got off the plane to have a mint julep at the airport lounge and the plane almost left without us.
Ed Ward:  The hotel was the Rivermont Holiday Inn. Not just any old Holiday Inn, but the Holiday Inn, the first one ever built, a high-rise on the Mississippi. It even had a revolving rack of Holiday Inn label 45s in the lobby, easy listening stuff. The first night there, we were given a reception and dinner, and that's where I met and shook hands with B.B. King, to whom I conveyed Michael Bloomfield's best wishes, to Mr. King's delight. "You know Michael?" he said. "He can sure play the guitar, can't he?"
Harold Bronson (Rolling Stone/Phonograph Record et al.):  At the opening night reception I hung mostly with Lester Bangs, who I always enjoyed chatting with, but didn't see much in Los Angeles. Back in those days, when you hung with Lester, that usually meant drinking.
Steve Simels (writing in 1973):  I spent my time in a long debate with Phonograph Record’s Ron Ross over the merits of David Bowie while modeling a rock-critic T-shirt thoughtfully provided by Creem’s Lester Bangs and Jaan Uhelszki.
John King:  I loved the Creem people because they were anarchists, and that was just exciting and fascinating.
'Metal Mike' Saunders (Rolling Stone/Phonograph Record/assorted fanzines):  On the opening night there was a nice-print screening of "The T.A.M.I. Show" (1965), which, back in 1973 was still something you never ever saw on TV.
Gene Sculatti (Phonograph Record et al.):  I remember sitting on the floor of the hotel ballroom with hundreds of other rock geeks the first night watching a bootleg version of "The T.A.M.I Show." It was the video grail then, since it'd been [and remains] officially unreleased.
Stanley Booth (author, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones):  I wore a Levi's jacket with a Confederate battle flag on it and scared the shit out of some teabags and Yankees who thought the Civil War was about to break out again. By the next day they understood that we black and white Southerners were in league against them. I made Stax give me a suite and then, having a Memphis house of my own, took an overtitted groupie there and did far too many drugs and fucked her silly, which she already was.
Ken Barnes (Phonograph Record/Who Put the Bomp):  There were a few civilian women who seemed strangely interested in the rather abstruse musical conversations taking place. Gosh, what nice girls, I thought to myself. When they left en masse after realizing their commercial prospects were somewhat less rosy than those at, say, a Shriners' convention, it dawned on me that they were tragically ill-advised hookers working the wrong crowd.
Billy Altman (Punk, Creem):  I remember one night when native Memphian Robot Hull and I were drunk on the couch of some ‘hospitality suite’ when several hookers walked in and sat on our laps. It was lots of fun until they found out we had no money and got up and left. This was the starving rock writers’ convention. I recall a big pile of shrimp on a bed of ice, around which everyone was hanging and hogging.
'Metal Mike' Saunders:  The key thing to that is that the list was entirely, and without any censorship/changes, compiled by [New Haven Rock Press editor] Jon Tiven and [Phonograph Record editor] Greg Shaw. That meant that every existing fanzine in all of America got an invite, even ones who’d only put out two issues, like Andy Shernoff’s Teenage Wasteland Gazette and Crescenzo Capece’s Cretinous Cententions. I hung exclusively with Crescenzo, Hot Scott Fischer and Billy Altman. Billy was still at University of New York at Buffalo or whatever state college he got to fund the original two issues of Punk way before any NYC fanzine called Punk.
Billy Altman:  In the spring of 1973 I was still attending the University of Buffalo in upstate New York. I had just published the first issue of my fanzine Punk, with the Seeds on the cover. My recollection is that I sent Greg Shaw a copy of Punk and that really led to my getting invited to the convention. I got the invite in the mail and was totally floored, especially since it was a free trip. There was no way I could have afforded to go on my own dime. I brought a batch of Punks with me and put a pile down in the room where they were having the opening night cocktail party, and that broke the ice for me with a lot of people, some of whom I'd been corresponding with already but hadn't met face to face--most notably Lester Bangs, who became one of my best friends. Lester, Meltzer and Saunders all asked if they could write something for the next issue of Punk. I had no money to offer them, but they all contributed pieces anyway.
Richard Meltzer (Creem/Zoo World et al., quoted in Paul Gorman’s In Their Own Write):  Cameron Crowe was, for damn sure--in more ways than one--the youngest such being in attendance: 16, maybe only 15, a goony-goofy gosh-oh-gee kid, blowing on a goddam kazoo. Or maybe an ocarina.
John King:  Cameron Crowe bugged the shit out of me to get him down here. He was persistent and bright.
Ross Johnson aka Chester the Conger Eel (Creem et al., to Big Star biographer Rob Jovanovic)::  I remember poor John King being hounded for more booze, more everything at the event. Later, he told me he hid from everybody for a brief spell because he just didn’t want to be hustled for anything else. Bangs seemed like he was alternately on speed or downs and Meltzer was drunk, drunk, drunk and later attempted to take off his pants while Big Star was playing. I hung out with the fanzine doofus crowd and watched the big boys from a distance.
Billy Altman:  Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Sandy Pearlman, Nick Tosches and Lenny Kaye were all heroes to me--the pioneering first generation rock critics. I was truly humbled to be so readily accepted by them as a peer. Lenny Kaye had the longest hair at the convention, male or female. Other ‘elders’ I recall meeting/getting to know a bit: Bud Scoppa, Chet Flippo, Vince Aletti, Ben Edmonds and Ed Ward.
Simon Frith (Let It Rock et al):  I can remember the unholy drunken trio of Nick Tosches, Lester Bangs, and Richard Meltzer, and by contrast the oddly well-scrubbed and earnest atmosphere of the mass meeting which tried to set up the statutes.
Cameron Crowe:  I think an election was held, and a few rock writers were voted in as part of a ‘council.' Lester Bangs and Jon Tiven were two of the big wigs of the ‘council.’ It was the first time any of us were probably ever voted into anything, ever.
Pete Frame (ZigZag):  There was a move afoot to change the name of the National Association of Rock Writers to the National Association of Rock Critics, so that the acronym would be NARC, giving it ironic drug allusion status. In the end, it was changed to Rock Writers of the World. Ha!
Gene Sculatti:  I remember Gary Kenton speechifying about how if we all banded together as a union we could demand the rock mags pay us a decent rate, say $50 per review.
Gary Kenton (Fusion):  It was a naive and doomed effort, but of all my time in and around the music biz as an editor, writer and P.R. guy, it's one of the things I'm most proud of.
Ed Ward:  As anyone who's tried to organize writers can attest, it was like trying to herd cats. I do remember that Vince Aletti bravely assumed the mantle of leader of this doomed operation, which died almost immediately afterwards.
Steven Rosen (Circus et al.):  It was really more of a parade of journalists preening and sticking out their chests. There were some discussion groups and some seminars but I don't think anyone took it seriously. Looking back on it, it really could have been something special. There were some pretty heavy writers there and if they'd decided to combine their talents/strengths and confront the magazines and various outlets concerning pay and stuff, it would have had some big consequences. As it was, I think the moment everyone left to head back home, all this discussion was forgotten. It was basically just a fun couple of days, drinking and lying and trying to bag women.
Gene Sculatti:  I recall going up into someone's room with a bunch of guys as Lester Bangs repeatedly placed calls to writer Patrick Snyder-Scumpy simply in order to make fun of his name.
Harold Bronson (writing in Phonograph Record, 1973):  A jolly good time was to be had if you went to the parties hosted by Dorene Lauer of A&M or Bud Scoppa of Mercury, who wouldn’t stop playing his New York Dolls and Blue Ash tapes.
'Metal Mike' Saunders:  Me and Hot Scott Fischer were sick to death of the crappy-sounding Dolls demo tape being played in non stop rotation by Paul Nelson and Bud Scoppa, so we put on a reel-to-reel w/kitchen table recordings of 19720-73 Metal Mike tunes, but without identifying what it was. I'm sure [Paul and Bud] thought they must have imagined the whole brief odd incident with those two fanzine/prozine teenage dirtbags.
Ed Ward:  There was the trip to the Schlitz brewery, which you can imagine we all enjoyed. Not that we associated ‘The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous’ with Memphis, but hey, free beer. And lots of it.
Nick Tosches:  It was the best beer I had ever tasted. That's when I learned that bottles were for wine and not for beer.
Harold Bronson:  On the Friday night there was a riverboat ride on the Mississippi. It was an old boat, like what you'd find at Disneyland. I enjoyed meeting and talking with Jon Tiven--whom I remember wearing an admirable if unsuitable English-styled coat--and a leather-clad Jann Uhelszki.
Jaan Uhelszki (Creem):  I was there, hanging over the railing of the Mississippi Queen with Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye and Richard Robinson. I was not the one throwing up, I'd like to add. Other revellers were Robot Hull, Gary Kenton and Gerritt Graham, who went on to play the Phantom of the Opera with Paul Williams.
Billy Altman:  The Mad Peck and I.C. Lotz came to the cruise all dressed up as if it was their yacht.
Gary Kenton:  No matter what anyone says, the star of the convention was I.C. Lotz, a writer for Fusion and a colleague of The Mad Peck.
Ed Ward:  On one of the days we went to Select-O-Hits, the record distributor who had all the original Sun stuff. Unfortunately, although most of us didn't know it, it was way too late in the day to find anything worthwhile: Canned Heat’s Bob Hite and others had been there, and we found some of the destroyed records they'd left behind. John Morthland, though, was way more resourceful than the rest of us, and spent our time there pawing through boxes of papers, from which he extracted a cancelled check to one Chester Burnett, a $50 advance for ‘Moanin' in the Moonlight’.
Ken Barnes:  The place was strewn with 45s and 78s, there for the inexpensive purchase or to be inadvertently crushed underfoot. A treasure trove; I bought dozens of singles and, had I known then what I know now about Southern soul, I probably would have bought hundreds more.
I.C. Lotz/The Mad Peck (writing in Fusion):  The Sun seekers raced for the one remaining copy of ‘Ubangi Stomp’ by Warren Smith, on 78, with Nick Tosches emerging victorious.
Ed Ward:  Other daytime events naturally included a tour of the Stax studios on McLemore Avenue, where I remember chatting with a couple of the guys from the Soul Children, one of whom had a baby with him and wasn't quite sure why he was supposed to be talking to these weird white kids. And then there was a trip to Graceland, which wasn't the museum/shrine it is today but a house with a living Elvis in it. And no, we weren't allowed inside.
Ken Barnes:  We didn't really get a lot out of a bus visit to Graceland, since we didn't actually go in. Chiefly I recall a bunch of writers--Richard Meltzer, most likely--waxing obnoxious about Elvis.
Billy Altman:   We got there and they said Elvis wasn't home. We were milling around, ready to get back on the bus, and Lester and Meltzer very ceremoniously went over and pissed through the gate. It was almost like they were marking their territory--and why not?
Ed Ward:   Several adventurous types, Pete Frame among them, walked up along one of the walls on the side of the property to see what they could see and answer the call of nature. I followed, and noticed that the entire wall was a solid mass of poison ivy. I saw Frame just as he was about to finish and noticed he had stepped into the foliage. "Hey, Pete, that's all poison ivy," I said. "Well," he replied, "I'm bloody well not eating any, am I?" I'll leave you to consider how he spent the next week until the stuff wore off.
Jonh Ingham (Creem/Phonograph Record et al.):  What sticks in my mind is an amazing amount of alcohol, standing on the street, the Mississippi in flood, and some of the best sex I've ever enjoyed. And watching Charlie Feathers in a redneck bar is seared into the retina.
Greg Shaw (writing in Phonograph Record):  First morning there I was awakened by a phone call, "Hey, Charlie Feathers is playin' tonight!" Out of the hundred or more ‘rock critics’ present, no more than a handful knew enough to be properly excited. Two carloads set off with vague directions for a small roadhouse some 40 miles outside of town, which in those parts is pretty remote. The place was set back off the road, trees all around, with about twenty cars and pickups pulled up in the dirt out front. I don't think we ever did get over the timewarp shock of being in a sweaty southern roadhouse listening to the kind of hardass rockabilly that was supposed to have died when Elvis joined the Army.
Gene Sculatti:  A bunch of us California guys got into a rental car and drove out into the country. Inside a one-story basalt-block club, the rockabilly cat was holding forth, seated on a chair on the linoleum floor. We all drank beer, even danced, as I recall, with some locals. We left ecstatic, pinching ourselves in the parking lot outside. But then a couple redneck ‘friends’ ambled over and made it clear they weren't too happy with us. We promptly got in the car and shot back to Memphis.
'Metal Mike' Saunders:  While all the record-collector dorks were out seeing Charlie Feathers at some rockabilly roadhouse, Richard Meltzer was making up intentionally retarded (hence funny) dance steps/moves on the floor during Big Star's set.
Richard Meltzer (introducing Big Star onstage):  "Well, puke on ya momma’s pussy! Here’s Big Star!"
Jody Stephens (Big Star drummer):  The big push was behind this English band called Skin Alley. But as John King was making these calls, and as the writers were our audience, [they] would ask if Big Star was going to play. So John came to us and said, ‘Hey, would you mind playing?’ So we did.
Pete Tomlinson (from liner notes to PVC release of Big Star Third):  The drudgery of the convention was completely forgotten on the closing-night party when Big Star took the stage for one of the most electrifying rock’n’roll performances ever. They were down to a trio due to Chris Bell’s departure, but the Chilton-led group turned a crowd of drunken freeloaders into drooling disciples with a taut, explosive set comprising the best of the first album, covers like the Kinks’ ‘Come On Now’, T. Rex’s ‘Baby Strange’, and Loudon Wainwright’s ‘Motel Blues’, and even an impromptu ‘The Letter’, taught to Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens on the spot.
Richard Rosebrough (sound engineer at show):  It was a scene of great disabandon and damage, drunken girlfriends--a typical Memphis party, in other words.
Bud Scoppa (writer for Rolling Stone, A&R man for Mercury Records):   Everybody was there. I remember Cameron Crowe walking around barefoot. We just all loved Big Star. They played the set as a three-piece and we thought they were the godhead.
Cameron Crowe:  That was the big event of the weekend for most of us. There were more big name rock critics in one place at one time than ever before or since. Alex Chilton encored with a surprisingly passionate version of ‘The Letter’ that sent everyone into spasms. This was the embodiment of every band's greatest dream or fear--the whole audience was rock writers!
Andy Hummel (Big Star bassist):  I have very fond memories of the gig. That was the only time I felt like we could really become a viable band outside the studio. We weren't great but we were pretty good and had a lot of energy. With some more experience I think we could have improved into a decent road act. I would say we did pretty much come out of that experience as a cohesive trio able to move on to finishing up the next LP.
Jon Tiven (New Haven Rock Press et al):  Alex Chilton was so enthused at the reception that he decided to convert his solo record into the second Big Star album, Radio City.
John King:  Alex loved it. To this day he calls me one of the great promotion men.
Jody Stephens (to Rob Jovanovic): I don’t know how good we were. The great thing about it was that we were the underdog and there wasn’t any pressure for us to perform well or make a good impression.
John King:  My favourite report on the convention was in Rock magazine, where the headline was simply "Rock Writers Convene, Find Each Other Absurd."
Cameron Crowe:  I know there were many promises to make the convention a yearly thing, but everybody knew at the time that this would probably be it. It was too expensive, and I could never figure out how John King was going to be able to pay for all of it. I remember a lot of "Sorry buddy, i know this is gonna cost you" sympathy for John by the end of the event.
Steve Simels (writing in Stereo Review, 1973)::  Whether Time or Newsweek will immediately set out to hire ‘official’ rock journalists, or whether we will now see Lester Bangs doing concert reviews for CBS News is another matter entirely. But I won’t be surprised.
Life After Ligging...
Greatest of all the Noise Boys (Tosches, Meltzer and co.), enshrined by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Publicist to stars both great and infamous.
Redneck gonzo, author of seminal Stones tome The True Adventures Of…
Co-founder of back-catalogue empire Rhino Records.
Director of Almost Famous, Jerry McGuire, Elizabethtown et al.
Creator of painstaking and invaluable Rock Family Trees.
Chairman of Mercury Prize judges.
Founder of Lotus Development Corporation and President of the Open Source Applications Foundation.
Biographer, producer, and Patti Smith’s long-time right-hand man.
Founder of notorious LA punk band the Angry Samoans.
Doors biographer and self-appointed custodian of Jim Morrison’s memory.
Author of Dean Martin biog Dino and other masterpieces.
Director of Animal Aid charity.