Tales of Hippie Glory
by Mike Greenblatt
In April of 1970, we swallowed some LSD and hit the East Village to see Pink Floyd at the Fillmore East. The brown acid I was warned against taking at Woodstock when I was 18 was so good, I started tripping regularly at 19. I knew I wouldn’t be drafted because the government had instituted a lottery system according to your birthday. I got lucky. So I quit college to go sing in a rock’n’roll band. Hey, what can a poor boy do?
We waved our freak flag high as we stood on a line that snaked down Second Avenue. We didn’t mind. It just gave us more time to smoke some opiated hash. Our minds were blown before we even walked into that hallowed hall. By the time we settled into our cheap balcony seats, we were agog at the thought of seeing the legendary Syd Barrett who wrote our favorite Pink Floyd song, the Beatlesque “See Emily Play.” Little did we know that poor Syd had been ousted from the band already for two years due to his prodigious intake of hallucinogens coupled with his deteriorating mental health. How were we to know? There was no Internet. If it wasn’t in the magazines we regularly bought (or, in my case, stole), we were in the dark. Syd Barrett’s replacement was Roger Waters and we didn’t like him at all.
Still, as a result of hearing Syd’s “Astronomy Domine” (our new favorite Floyd song) as well as “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” (Roger Waters trying his best to imitate Syd), we were sent spinning into the stratosphere in paroxysms of unadulterated joyousness. The band was still touring in support of its fourth album, Ummagumma, and playing selections from its not-yet-released fifth album, Atom Heart Mother, which was only months away.
Keyboardist Richard Wright had a stick shift on his huge keyboard. When he moved it to the right, odd sounds emanated to our left. We couldn’t figure it out. It sounded like rats scurrying in the wall. Conversely, when he moved it to his left, an eruption as if the building was being bombed assaulted our senses. And when he pulled it towards him, the sound came from behind us, totally freaking us out. It was starting to get a little too scary.
That’s when they went into “Careful With That Ax, Eugene.”
At first, the song calmed our fragile eggshell minds with 10 minutes of mellifluous organ doodling. At one point, the music dropped away entirely and all we heard was the sound of footsteps on the roof as if a huge giant was walking above us. It was unsettling. Weird. We were getting more than we bargained for. Where was “See Emily Play”? It seemed as if they were a whole new band, kidnapped by Roger Waters and infused with his own Hollywood shock value proclivities. We wanted Syd.
Our reveries came to a complete and dramatic halt when—all of a sudden—like from the bowels of Hell, someone screamed at the top of their lungs. I thought it was someone from the audience being murdered. The scream escalated in intensity, and my mounting sense of dread blossomed into a dire need to escape. I ran downstairs, and continued running right out of the Fillmore East into the street, hyperventilating, sweating, totally freaked. I don’t know how long I walked after that but I miraculously, inexplicably, found my way inside Slug’s, the legendary jazz room. Nobody seemed to mind as I stood against the wall and gazed at the stage while hearing the strangest sound I had ever digested up to that point in my life.
I was transfixed.
There was a Black dude on the bandstand wearing a dashiki. He was blowing whistles, banging on bells and, as he blew into one of three saxophones hanging around his neck by what looked like guitar straps, his eyes rolled up to the top of his head. Was this the house band in Hell? I was afraid I’d hear that scream again. But no. The music was strangely calming. Soothing. A total groove. It was sweet yet arrogant at the same time. I loved it. Then he stuck one of his horns into his nose and proceeded to blow. What the fuck kind of music was this?
Then they kicked me out.
I learned later it was Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the mysterious otherworldly music he played was my introduction to jazz.
I walked back to the Fillmore East and settled into my seat just in time for Pink Floyd’s encore.