We were going to hear a lot of bands then, in nearby Sacramento and sometimes SF, and a lot of it was crap; the psychedelic bands of the late Sixties were in a kind of stoned decline (I remember a particularly depressing show by Quicksilver Messenger Service, lead singer Dino Valenti staggering around on stage like a man who’d lost the plot) and bad new variations were rising to take their place. “Heavy metal” was not a term anyone used yet, but the noise had begun.I was 16 years old and making a lot of bad choices. It was 1971 and regular drug use had already put a damper on my social life; most of my friends were stoners and though girls seemed to like me, I was generally too shy and drug-addled to know what to do about it.
I remember telling some girls in my Spanish class that I wanted to go see Rod Stewart and the Faces at Cal Expo and somehow ended up going with my friend Klobas and two girls I hardly knew. “Gasoline Alley” had been on my turntable for a year and the Faces (formerly the Small Faces) had been part of my soundtrack since I was a kid; Ronnie Lane’s “Itchycoo Park” was the first song I heard about getting high and dropping out of school (“Why go to learn the words of fools?” ... especially when you could be feeding the ducks with a bun?), advice I came to take all too literally.
What drugs we took before a show then often depended on what was being sold outside the door and that night I think the nice man said it was psilocybin. The concert was packed beyond capacity, in a giant tractor shed on the state fairgrounds, and I remember being packed in tightly near members of a local motorcycle club called Jokers Wild. I was already starting to get a bad vibe off the drugs and the bikers made me nervous. Then came the opening act.
I don’t think I had actually listened to Black Sabbath at that point and I’m not sure what genius had them opening for the Faces but the combination of the band’s volume (beyond anything I had heard at that point), its songs (“Paranoid,” “Hand of Doom”) and the fact I could not move drove me into the deep end of a bad trip quickly. I remember huddling on the concrete floor while one of the miniskirted chicks looked down at me in alarm.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
And then, mercifully, they stopped. I don’t remember what kind of response the band got though I think the bikers dug them. The lights came up, the visions of purple windmills that had just been chewing up my gray matter like the blades of a food processor ceased — but I still couldn’t move and now I really had to pee.
Fortunately, so did the Jokers Wild, and after trying to push his way through the stubborn crowd, the leader of the pack pulled out a bullwhip and cracked it over the head of the herd. And lo, they parted like the sea for Moses, me following in their wake like Pee-Wee Herman glomming onto Milton Berle’s entourage in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”
By the time I returned, the girls were giving me the fisheye and Klobas was concerned I was scaring his date. Acid-casualty made for a lousy wingman. But then the lights went down again and the Faces launched into the opening chords of “Three-Button Hand-Me-Down” (“I don’t need no one’s opinion/On the matter concerning my dress”) and before the song was over all the black cobwebs left from Black Sabbath had been blown out of my drug-addled brain.
It wasn’t just the metal that got the boot (and these days, BS sounds positively melodic compared to a lot that have come since) but the dopey shoegazing of all the wasted groups I’d been watching for years. Rod and the lads paced and strutted about the stage like a good-natured soccer team closing down the pub (in later shows the band actually set a bar up on stage, complete with barman pulling pints).
I was still stoned enough to think, when Ronnie Lane began the intro to their cover of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” that Paul McCartney had joined them (which in the context of the time, not to mention Sacramento, would have been like Jesus appearing in the crowd). By the time they reached their finale (“Had Me a Real Good Time”), I had been led from the darkness by Rod and the mods, holding a lamp aloft as we climbed to some nobler plateau.
“So,” I said to one of the girls as we left, a new swagger in my step. “What’d you think?”