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45 Years Ago: April 5th and 6th, 1968... The Who Debut at the Fillmore East the Night After MLK Jr.'s Assassination

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I am currently waltzing my way through the seventh (or is it seventeenth?) "final" revision on my book, The Who: Choosing My Religion. The thing about editing, rewriting, revising, is... with each pass, you have to become even more focused exactly when you're dying to skim and be done with it already. Like, building a table in 4 hours and then sanding it down for 3 days.

Anyway... I suddenly realized this morning that Chapter 8 took place 45 years ago this week.

We're specifically going back to April 6th, 1968, The second night of The Who's Friday/Saturday debut gig at the fabled Fillmore East...

Excerpt aka Chapter 8 starts... now!

The Fillmore East opened for business in the old Village Theater on 2nd Avenue, just north of East 6th Street on March 8, 1968.

Nothing short of alchemy, dilapidation and indifference had given way to state-of-the-art rock concert presentation. If you were between the ages of say, 12 and 25 back then, you were probably taking your rock 'n' roll very seriously indeed. For a great many of us tender shoots, rock music was oxygen, the air we breathed. This opening had been fiercely anticipated. That worn-out dump in the seedy East Village was now... Mecca!

"Bill Graham and the Fillmore East Presents The Who"

The announcement came in early February. The fourth weekend of the Fillmore East's existence was to be headlined by The Who, April 5th and 6th, a mere 120 days or so after their last date at the ratty Village Theater. My gasping little brain-pan could barely comprehend the astounding magnitude of the supreme greatness and overwhelming moment-in-destiny of this incomparable event looming on the horizon. I'd just turned 15.

My pal, Steven T, one of my many converts, (and, baby, by now, I was preaching The Who!), had his 15th birthday coming up in early April...

"Oooo, ooo, ooo, Steve, tell your Mom you wanna take some friends to see The Who at the Fillmore East for your birthday, man! Let's go!"

Steve flipped for the idea on the spot.

Later that night, he called me to say that his mother had agreed to buy 5 tickets ($25 in 1968 money!) for the Saturday early show. Serious in-depth exclamations of our mutual brilliance on this coup!

April 4th, the day before the first show The Who were to perform at the Fillmore East, was a wonderful day for J Edgar and his hideous ilk. "Someone" finally got around to taking out that "communist agitator", Martin Luther King Jr., with a gun in Memphis. Five years later, the US of A was still trying to gather its wits in the aftermath of JFK's murder, and now this!

In several cities some serious riot-violence broke out that night, but, not in New York, a badge of honor the city can wear for eternity.

Still, the next morning, Friday, the 5th, I, along with Ben, who'd gone to the Murray The K show with me, and Jake, the guitar-catcher at the Village Theater matinee, were the only three white kids who showed up for class at our all black junior high school in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill. No one rebuked us. The mood was calm, only mournful. All the students just walked through the pall of the hallways, nodding to each other balefully.

That night, a night actually fraught with real peril at the time, Andy S, one of Steven's birthday guests, snuck off to the Fillmore East without telling his mom or any of us (What the...!) and saw the Friday night early show all by himself. Andy's breathless report the next morning... No one was there! He had bought crappy $3.00 balcony seats and wound up in the 3rd row right in front of Pete Townshend! He told us that while they were great, it was also obvious the band was bumming.

And then, Andy's spectacular kicker delivered with teenage panache! Pete had not smashed his white Stratocaster. HE'D GIVEN IT WAY! Without warning, just dumped into the arms of some kid in the front row!

I was instantly beside myself in keening outrage/envy/lust/longing/hope.

"Oh my God, I have to be in the front row for every show from now on! He'll do that again someday! Next time it's gonna be me, dammit, ME!"

This is actually and truly what flashed through my head like an electric shock. Sick sick puppy!

The sun went down on Saturday, April 6th, and the entire city felt like it was on some kind of foreboding emotional lock-down. Parents in Brooklyn Heights were worried.

Father, yelling: "Are we gonna let him go into the goddamn East Village [back then, a bad bad neighborhood, indeed], tonight of all nights?! I'm sorry. I am against this, flat out against it!"

Teenage boy, shrieking: "It's The Who! I am not staying home, okay! I'M GOING!!!"... storming out and running down the block as fast as teenage boy can muster...

As the five of us birthday junketeers gathered at the Borough Hall IRT stop in Brooklyn, it turned out that we'd all gone through much the same scene (see above) in order to be heading to see and hear...

Our Gods @ Mecca!

This would be the first and last time I would be ignorant of the exact seat numbers that mattered. Our seats were in the 7th row, center (Way to go, Mom!). Steven had arbitrarily handed me 113, the center section's seat on the theater's right aisle. Before the lights went down, I walked up to the very front of the orchestra and saw that the front row seat on the aisle directly under Pete Townshend's mic-stand was AA113. Got it! I'd wind up seeing The Who do another 14 shows at the Fillmore East. I sat in AA113 for 13 of them... had to settle for CC113 one night.

By the time Free Spirits (no strong memories, just okay jazz... Larry Coryell was using a dirty rock tone on his guitar, a very early jazzer to go there) took the stage to open the show that sad and anxious evening, it looked like the theater was only about one third full. Wow, everyone was home under the covers! No one was showing up. Kind of made us five feel like Tough Guy Real Fans ("... nor gloom of night...")!

Buddy Guy, who I'd only recently even heard of, then played a spectacular set, the first time I'd ever seen an actual Blues Man. Even at the age of 15, I could easily see and hear that this man's performing and guitar playing were just fuckin' lethal compared to white guys with long flowing hair.

Holy shit, did he ever look the part, too! Perfectly processed hair. Razor-sharp continental suit. Shiney Italian loafers. Sinister handsome. And, in odd but compelling contrast, oh man, his sunburst Strat was beat the fuck up. I really fell in love with that "relic/distressed" look that night (all my guitars are a bit beat up... and none of them have any fake aging whatsoever). His band was all black and just as Real. I wish I knew who I saw back Buddy up that night. An all-star blues-crew, no doubt. I was enthralled and actually can vividly recall the blues were a balm that night, my first experience with what the blues was all about... Feeling good while feeling awful!

This was also my first experience with the Joshua Light Show. It seems somewhat quaint now. But, that movie screen's exploding colors and gloppy ever-changing shapes were a revelation. I had not done, and would never do a psychedelic, but, I loved this safe approximation of what "trips" had been advertised doing to you. The amount of thought and effort that went into those light shows every night was remarkable.

After a gradually-less-somber interlude (Oh, shit, The Who are next!), Bill Graham appeared on the far right side of the stage as the lights went down. In a tight white follow-spot, he announced that due to the sad uniqueness of the evening, the doors to the Fillmore East were going to be opened to anyone with any ticket for either the early or late show, and that instead of doing two sets, The Who had agreed to doing one long show (I think as the night wore on, the Fillmore East staff allowed anyone in, ticket or no). And with that, he announced the band.

This show that was about to start was recorded for a possible The Who Live at the Fillmore East officially-released live album. As was typical of The Who back then, it never came to fruition. Murky versions were bootlegged for years and years. This Youtube link gets you most of this remarkable show in excellent sound quality...

At one point, you can even hear Pete and Keith sing a little song about their last visit when the venue (as the Village Theater) had been "a pisshole... pisshole... pisshole!" in a laa dee dah sing-song fashion.

Set list-wise, four things stand out all these years later... They did Eddie Cochran's masterpiece, "My Way", often mis-titled "Easy Goin' Guy", a fabulous blues-based basher. They did "Little Billy", a phenomenal anti-smoking song commissioned by the American Cancer Society, a truly 'lost classic' by Pete. They debuted their super cool "Fortune Teller/Tattoo" medley. They jammed like a frickin' radical jazz band during the extended break in Sell Out's "Relax".

Decades later, during a chance meeting, Mike Esposito, lead guitarist of the seminally psychedelic Blues Magoos, told me that he'd discovered, while on tour with The Who in 1967, that Pete Townshend was actually, in his opinion, the best British blues player extant. As Mr. Graham made his announcements, Pete was warming up with blues licks. And, wow, Pete sounded pretty damn wicked, I must say... even right after Buddy Guy!

Years later, Pete once said of his own immaculate blues playing on "I Don't Mind", one of two (!) James Brown covers on The Who's debut album, "Who on earth is that guitar player?!"

The first thing to impact me as The Who launched into their set opener, "Substitute", was Pete's dressed down look. No spangled jacket, no super-frilly shirt... just chukka boots, white chinos, and pale blue collarless sweater. This was odd! Especially since Andy S. had told us that Pete was still wearing that gaudy November 1967 look just the night before. I guess the pall of our national tragedy and shame had Pete feeling silly about getting dolled up for the hip 'n' hardy Fillmore East crowd. I believe Pete retired his fop look for good that night.

The other three Who's were dressed down compared to their earlier tours as well. The one element that had gotten more radical was Roger's hair, now in it's fullest suburban housewife bouffant of his career.

Next, Pete's Inca Silver Fender Stratocaster. My God! I was unaware that silver was even a color choice for Fenders. In the lights, as Pete bashed away at it, the thing just gleamed. It literally glowed. It was the single most beautiful object I'd ever seen.

This was also the first gig I saw where The Who had their standard array of Marshall stacks. That silver-surfer Fender through those amps! Celestial tone!

Just as I was overtly starting to swoon over the deafening roar (no earplugs), and four ring visual circus that was The Who, I suddenly blanched...

Oh, right, I was at the Fillmore East now. I had to tamp it down. I had to dig The Who cool and hip like, not all kiddie, okay! Yeah, yeah, okay. Sorry, I was soon writhing in restrained (as in strait-jacketed) ecstasy as they blasted into "Summertime Blues", only the fourth time I'd ever heard them do that masterpiece of writing and arranging, barely stifling the urge to jump out of my seat while air-drumming along with Keith Moon.

Then something happened... I don't recall what they were playing, but, about five or six songs into what was to be a two hour plus session, Pete suddenly sort of squinted into the audience, our eyes met. His asked, "Is that you, the kid who was up on stage the last time we played here?" I answered by leaping out of my seat and literally jumping up and down in the aisle, waving wildly.

I immediately realized I'd gone waaay off the wrong end of the Cool scale, and sheepishly plunked back down in my aisle seat. Birthday Steven, sitting next to me, yelled, "He saw you, Binky!"

Within 30 seconds, Pete's gaze again swung in my direction. Without a moment's hesitation, I sprang up, waving like a four year old at a firetruck! Gulp! I sat back down! But, he saw me!

What can I tell you... from that point on, while enjoying the living heaven out of the whole band, my eyes pretty much never left Pete.

By the fourth time he'd looked in my general vicinity I'd bounced up and shook my shaky hand in the air, no longer giving a rat's ass what anyone was thinking. I was gonna get Pete Townshend of The Who to acknowledge me, period.

And... Whoa! On about the 5th or 6th wave, while in the middle of a windmill, Pete snuck me a tiny wave back, accompanied by a tiny amused smile. Inside, I melted like a girl.

He looked at me again. I jumped up and waved again. This time, he waved back, directly at me, in a good-humored big gesture way.

I was in some other place by now. I don't know how many times he waved back at me, I was on auto-fanatic.

Then, a guy, across the aisle to my right, threw his hand up and waved and Pete waved back at him. Then another. Within the space of about a song, I single-(waving)-handedly had turned a hip Who concert at the brand new Rock Shrine of All That Is/Was Cutting Edge Cool, the Fillmore East, into a Herman Hermits-teenybopper show two nights after Martin Luther King's death. There were now at least 15 people waving at Pete wherever he turned his gaze. Took us all another song to get it out of our systems.

Meanwhile, that gorgeous jet-fuselage-silver guitar kept me transfixed... What if he gives that one away tonight?! Oh, God! How I tried to keep that thought from becoming a tape-loop in my head.

Having stretching several songs into 10 minute jams in order to give latecomers some show, "My Generation" finally made it's fatal way onto the stage.

I can say without a doubt, no guitar has ever suffered the way that silver Strat did. Pete was not giving this Fender away to anyone... in one piece, at any rate! I'd estimate that the ritual destruction took no less than five full-blast minutes.

Pete toyed with the Inca beauty with little flips in the air and semi-serious bangs against the 4x12 speaker cabinets. More show than go. Then, he took to standing at the very edge of the stage, his back to us, hurling the guitar, neck-first, like a spear, at the grill clothes of the Marshall cabinets. He actually seemed to be attempting to embed the guitar's neck like an arrow in a target. Damn thing kept bouncing onto the floor! All the while, plugged in, of course, with the distortion pedal engaged. Huge indescribably luscious noise!

Pete grabbed his mic stand and for the first time, I saw him do the mic-stand-as-violin-bow trick with the Strat tucked under his chin. He then threw both the stand and the Strat to the stage. He got on his knees, and using the tipped-on-its-side mic-stand base as his tool, holding it flat, facing up, Pete started trying to split the guitar's body by banging it against this round perpendicular chunk of metal. No go!

Okay, now, he got angry. This guitar had defied him! He'd been sort of playing with this Fender the way a cat would play with a chipmunk or mole before devouring. But, the silver body's steadfast adhesion irked Peter T.

He stood up, threw the guitar to the stage, picked up said mic-stand and started smashing the Strat as with a sledgehammer. Raising the base of the stand 3 feet above his head and just slamming that Fender. The guitar was shrieking and groaning and with each hit another weird ugly wail or bark raged!

Oh, yes, of course, Keith and Ox were just absolutely roaring away through all of this.

Complete aural bedlam!

Once the guitar's body finally gave way, Pete seemed to just go off the deep end.

Like an excited little kid, he gathered up the pieces of silver wood and made a pile onstage. He then took up the mic stand again and proceeded to smash the three or four large chunks of silver wood into... fucking kindling! When the mic-stand broke from this battering, he fell back to his knees and continued to bash ever-smaller chunks into smithereens with just the heavy round stand-base.

Meanwhile, the Strat's pickguard with its three pickups was laying onstage, still plugged in, and sending out this static-y morse code. Pete realized it was making noise, picked it up and played bongos on the live pickups for a few seconds, tossed that aside, and then scooped up the (tiny) pieces, handfuls of crap that was once a stunning electric guitar, and threw the stuff into the aisle I was sitting on. I dived as if sliding into home as dozens of bits hit the aisle's carpeting. I came away with a tremolo spring, a tuning peg, and a sliver of wood with one side silver lacquer, about an inch and a half long, half an inch wide.

Ephemera of my religion.