The first REAL band I was in was the Original Mind and Body Sandwich, or as most people called it, the Tim Tyler Band. This was the fall of 1968, during my second year at William and Mary. Coincidentally, Tim and I reconnected in Richmond and have played in more musical configurations than most people have cars in their lifetime. This band made its mark on the hallowed halls of William and Mary; the campus newspaper listed us as among the 10 top things (or maybe it was 20) to enjoy at W&M. We barely beat out tricorn hats.
Joking aside, we were a groundbreaking venture for this quaint little campus in Williamsburg, and we quickly achieved celebrity status. The “freaks”, a community so small everyone was on a first-name basis, embraced us, and even our practices drew dozens of stoned-out hipsters. This actually proved a hindrance because rehearsals invariably turned into quasi-performances to please and appease the long-hairs nodding and bobbing about the room.
Tim played lead on a blue Strat. I was on bass, initially playing my cherry EBO through a Gibson amp of Tim’s. John Coffey was on drums, Rix Reeser our male vocalist, Karen Devitt (a townie) our female vocalist, and Tim Auckerman on megakeyboards. Our song list was a mishmash of psychedelic stuff, such showstoppers as Jefferson Airplaine’s “Somebody to Love” and two organ-intensive ditties—“In a Gadda Da Vida” (I can’t spell it and I ain’t gonna look it up because the song is puke city) and “Light My Fire.” The latter featured Auckerman literally ripping at the guts of his Farfisa organ, tilting it back and slamming it against the floor and doing various and sundry other tricks to produce the maximum possible godawful noise to heighten the ejaculatory instrumental break. It was a definite crowd-pleaser.
Karen was our flower. She looked part Indian, with high cheekbones and long, fine black hair that hung straight over her shoulders. She was shy in a charming way, not a natural entertainer, and all the guys (me included) were in love or lust with her. She had a clear, bell-like voice, good for some stuff but not quite suited to the tear-out-your-larynx scream of, say, Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” In fact, we went around the band seeing if someone could pull of the scream. Funny—scream practice. But no luck.
Our musicianship in general was somewhat primitive, to be kind. Lots of wrong notes, lucky to end together without one of those everybody-watch-me-now signals. We lacked any semblance of professionalism. No set list, so we spent long minutes debating what song to play next and, of course, tuning up. But I’ll be damned if we didn’t light a few fires in our day.
Two momentous occasions survive in my memory. One was the first annual and only Peace Ball. It was our answer to the college’s ROTC Military Ball, which was proceeding with all due decorum in W&M’s main campus center while we cranked it up in the building’s lower level. It was also the occasion of my first date with Rebecca, and I was very conscious of being IN THE BAND on campus putting on THE GIG of the year. Humility becomes me. There were hippies from wall to wall sitting on the floor, and we played truly inspired stuff. “Somebody to Love” soared in a sonic jet stream—hey, we even ended together. I also remember using a homemade fuzz box during by bass solo (these were the days when everybody got a solo), and I think people thought an F-14 was buzzing their brains when that fuzz kicked in. A friend told me later it was a simple case of his mind exploding. Anyway, we ended the night heroes, both for our music and for the countercultural statement we made as Johnny went marching above.
The other occasion of moment was during a time of great unrest on campus. We (all students of good faith and long hair) were challenging the authorities on such issues as having visitation rights in our dorms (girls in our rooms). Remember in loco parentis? Ripley’s Believe It or Not—in that sleepy little anachronism of a town, students seized the administration building one evening, necessitating the dean to call in the state police. One night when all this confrontational posturing was at a fever pitch, someone’s light bulb blinked. “Why don’t we have a midnight rally? And why not get Tim Tyler’s band to play?” In all candor, I must confess I was not a political animal. Seizing buildings was not my style, and I had found my own little way of getting Rebecca up to my room. But a midnight rally, playing under the stars? Dig!
So we set up outside of Old Dominion dorm and wailed away for about 20 minutes, just long enough to attract a big crowd—and the police. The pigs, to use the parlance of the time, came to shut us down because residents had complained about the noise. There was a tense moment when one of the student leaders confronted the officers and students in the crowd protested, but we quietly packed our equipment and faded into the night. Our status as rebels swelled, but I didn’t give a hoot. Music consumed me, not facing down the cops, and during that year I knew that no matter what, I always wanted to be in a band. I had felt the power of electric sound up close, where the volume creates an internal buzz, a velvet hum that permeates every bone and artery. I also had felt what it was like to help create the tug. It was almost ineffable, this sensation of playing, or enjoying the physical act of creating the notes, of communicating with other people also creating notes, of becoming excited by that dialogue, and then also feeling the excitement of people offstage watching. It was magical. It was unlike anything I had experienced before, far more sublime than any moment I’d had playing the oboe. That’s fer sure.
That year also marked a change in the way I viewed concerts. I had a better idea of what those geezers were doing onstage and was less mystified by the whole process. I finally had made the effort to learn where the notes where on the bass, surpassing that achievement by several quantum leaps to grasp basic chord progressions and—watch out now—was developing some hot licks of my own. My classical training was bearing fruit in rock ‘n’ roll, so when I heard other bands I was more critical in one sense, more appreciative of really good playing and more understanding of the complexities that went into the process of making electronic music.
A world of difference lay between the second and third times I saw Hendrix—differences in myself, in the musical scene, in the reputation of Hendrix himself.
The second was during the summer of 1968, less than a year after Reid and I saw the magic boy at the Washington Hilton. “Axis Bold as Love” had been released, and the waves he’d generated on his first U.S. tour had carried him into the limelight of rock. He was a for-sure superstar. Newspapers and magazines had lengthy articles on this swashbuckling electric guitar pirate. His antics had generated more press than his playing, but musicians already were calling him the best electric guitarist in the world.
During that summer, my own musicianship began to blossom, for I started playing with Bill in the shop after work fairly regularly. We produced bizarre flights of abstract musical esoterica, but we both grew musically. We kind of just let our fingers—and our minds—do the walking through the Twilight Zone. We’d play catch with ideas—“Here, see what you can do with this riff.” “Hmmm, let me add a little of this to that, bro and see where it go” A casual listener might have gagged, but we had run, and we were the only ones listening.
Fed by the ravings of Reid and me, as well as by what his ears were telling him, Willy was turning into a Hendrix freak in his own right (he’d seen Hendrix in Texas as well). Gene, too, had broke out of his “If it ain’t soul, I ain’t listening” mold and was eager to see this guy we talked about so much. The result was that we all got tickets to see Jimi at Meriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md.
I was in downright physical distress that night. Earlier in the day at work (I was a lowly shovel-toting laborer at a construction site), I had helped unload a delivery of railroad ties soaked in creosote. If you don’t know about creosote, suffice it to say that now it is banned as a wood preservative for its carcinogenic qualities. It was so caustic it literally ate away the skin on my forearms. They felt like they were on fire, and I wore a long-sleeve shirt, despite the heat, to keep from scratching myself.
Two acts preceded Hendrix—Eire, I believe (or Eire was in the name somewhere, a forgettable Irish band) and again the Soft Machine, whose music was just boring enough to make us all the more antsy for Hendrix.
Finally—the man. From his entrance, it was a magical evening. He came on playing with one hand—no picking or strumming—while with his other hand, his left, he imitated a bird in flight—swooping, diving, fluttering. It was amazing. We watched breathless. Nobody had played like that before. The notes came out in flurries and wails, building a crescendo until the whole band walloped into “Foxey Lady.” The slow tempo gave him plenty of time to crouch and swagger. He’d hit a trill, point at some woman (foxey lady!) in the front of the crowd, stick out his tongue and wiggle it suggestively in time with the trill. The wall of sound was numbing; the stack of Marshalls behind his back was giving the sound character and color as well as power.
I can’t remember the complete rundown of songs, a mix of stuff from his first album and “Axis.” “Spanish Castle Magic” was unbelievable, as was “I Don’t Live Today.” He’d coax those harmonic feedback strains from his sound and, God knows how, bend and stretch and contort them into devilish howls and banshee shrieks.
As the set progressed, our awe built. The man was playing his ass off, and we were watching a genius at work. Just when he’d finished one amazing lead that seemed to be the most incredible thing ever played, he’d top it with another that was more bizarre, more inventive, more challenging. Buzzsaw chords one second, exacto-sharp leads the next. And his heart was in every note.
The momentum built steadily, and the air became electrically charged—literally. A storm that had been brewing all evening was boiling toward the pavilion.
Jimi sensed it. His playing crackled with energy. Thunder boomed in the distance, then closer. Jimi’s amp answered like a fist raised to the sky, and he wailed with increasing intensity. It was as if he had conjured up the storm to play backup.
Just as Jimi was launching into his finale—“Are You Experienced,” I believe—the storm found its mark. Lightning stabbed at the pavilion. The crashing overhead fused with the wailing from the stage in a climax of pure power. It was deafening, threatening. My skin tingled and I could hardly breathe. I felt like I, the stage, the pavilion, Jimi—everything was about to explode.
The lyrics of the song thrust through. “Have you ever been experienced?” Lord! We were all being experienced right then and there, Jimi and the gods—battle of the bands? You can just see old Zeus up there, digging this cocky black psyche-soul brother mustering up thunder and lightning of his own and deciding to add a bit of his own Olympian feedback to the show. Voodoo Zeus!
When it was over, I felt like I’d seen all rock music had to offer. And in many ways, after seeing hundreds of concerts, I feel the same.