Long before it became a conversation-stopping mantra of the extremist right wing, ‘cancel culture’ visited rock ‘n’ roll on numerous occasions. Guitarist, deejay, scenemaker and writer Gary Lucas was witness to several such events, a couple even directed at him personally. He shares his insights with PKM readers herein.
CANCEL CULTURE—what does it mean exactly?
I got to thinking about this after the recent death of Yiddish tummler funnyman Jackie Mason– famously banned from the Ed Sullivan Show for several years for purportedly giving Ed the finger at the end of his routine.
Now I say purportedly because I saw that particular episode on Oct. 18, 1964, on CBS Television live — and it’s emblazoned forever in my brain. And, in fact, Jackie held up his forefinger–not the middle finger–and stabbed the air randomly at the forces without who were exhorting him to cut his set short, due to LBJ about to give an important speech live, which forced CBS to cancel the remainder of the Ed Sullivan Show that night (there’s that word again, cancel).
Anyway, Jackie filed a lawsuit. and submitted tapes in court to prove his innocence against charges of making an obscene gesture on live TV—and eventually Jackie and Ed kissed and made up, and Ed began booking Jackie again. But the damage was done– Ed’s cancellation put a significant crimp in Mason’s career for a few years.
Basically “cancel,” according to the OED, means to obliterate or rub out, and it’s of course mighty unpleasant to the cancelled, whether done by imperial fiat, by committee, by the ill winds of public opinion, or by force majeure or an Act of God (depending on your belief systems): For instance, the great Pinky Lee, star song and dance man / TV clown of my youth, had a very public collapse on live television which I also witnessed as a child, scarring me for life.
“Yo ho, hee-hee! My name is Pinky Lee!! Hurry up hurry up hurry up hurry up and forget your miser—Ohhhhhhhhh” (keeling over and collapsing on the floor of the set). And that was the end of Pinky, for a couple days anyway.
But how does “cancel culture” operate in music?
Well, one could recall the PMRC’s valiant attempt at censoring artists and albums they felt were “corrupting the youth” vis a vis televised Senate hearings, which were effectively countered by Frank Zappa.
But how about live music?
I’ve seen several acts over the years who were threatened, and in some cases, stopped in their tracks, by on-site cancellation of one form or another—and some handled it better than others.
Let me count the ways:
FRANK ZAPPA AND THE ORIGINAL MOTHERS at the SYRACUSE WAR MEMORIAL Feb. 28, 1968—CANCELLED!
I was soooo looking forward to this show! I was a stone Zappa fan since 1966 when my buddy Andy Chertow turned me on to both Freak Out and the Velvet’s “Banana” album nearly simultaneously—both on Verve, and both sporting Tom Wilson (Dylan’s producer for a while) at the controls. And they did not disappoint. They came onstage and stormed through a medley of music new and old which included their classic routine based around their cover of The Angels “My Boyfriend’s Back”, Ray Collins and Roy Estrada handling the girl group falsettos with Zappa’s commentary (Frank: “Her boyfriend’s back and he’s pissed as shit!”). Just side-splitting, ferocious entertainment. Then they took a break.
When they came back onstage, during their second number, which as I recall was an instrumental version of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”, from We’re Only In It for the Money—which hadn’t yet been released—some frat boy in the front threw a raw egg at Frank—which broke all over his purple college letterman sweater and spattering on into the bell of Ian Underwood’s alto sax. Frank stopped the band playing immediately, while Ian ruefully began trying to pick egg matter out of his saxophone. Frank stepped up to the mic, and made an attempt at humor:
“Will the owner of this egg please step up and identify himself?”
Uneasy laughter from the full house. They knew Frank was furious.
He then turned on his 1,000-watt sneer:
“If you like our music, fine. If you DON’T like our music—then GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!!”
He signaled the band to come back in, they finished their number—and then they stalked off en masse, cutting the concert short by at least 40 minutes.
Outside the War Memorial, a friend of mine ran into the egg-throwing culprit, who admitted to hurling the egg, but claimed it was all in good clean fun in the spirit of the thing. What an asshole!
JANIS JOPLIN’S FULL-TILT BOOGIE BAND at the SYRACUSE WAR MEMORIAL, May 2, 1969—CANCELLED!
Her second appearance in Syracuse in a year, shortly after ditching Big Brother and the Holding Company—with the same opening act, Paul Butterfield Blues Band (the third lineup, with horns). During the rise for the obligatory National Anthem before the show started, when the lights in the house would go down and the giant flag hanging over the stage would start fluttering courtesy of electric fans, the whole thing illuminated by special lightning, some knucklehead in Janis’s Full-Tilt Boogie Band doodled loudly on their electric keyboard trying to jam along with the “The Star Spangled Banner”. Big mistake!
The cops left Butterfield unscathed and allowed him to do his entire set, which was phenomenal, especially “Drifting and Drifting” with soloing from young new guitar hotshot Buzzy Feiten —but after intermission when Janis and her new band came out to play, early on after their second number, a couple cops walked onstage to inform Janis that the show was over, having discovered that HER KEYBOARDIST had been the phantom organist during the hallowed National Anthem moment —and that the show could not, therefore, go on (huh?), after this insult to Old Glory! Collective punishment indeed. BAM!! Janice yowled and screeched and swore angrily and folded her tent right then and there, haughtily flouncing off the stage with her band trailing doggedly behind her–never to return to perform in Syracuse. One can only imagine the Kozmic Blues Mama herself screaming down the phone at manager Albert Grossman after this ignominious set-back in my little town.
“Mmmmmmmfff!!”—“Combination of the Two”, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Or rather—”miaowwwwww!”
THE JEFF BECK GROUP at GAELIC PARK, THE BRONX, N.Y., Aug. 2, 1972—SET CUT SHORT!
I’ve always loved Jeff Beck, perhaps my favorite guitarist since his days in the Yardbirds. And I have more or less enthused about his various group projects since leaving the Yardbirds—in fact I raved about his Truth album the moment it came out in 1968 in a review for my high school underground newspaper, Cogito. And I was way into his “Rough and Ready” Jeff Beck Group later on, a more R&B, funky excursion than the original lineup, and saw them give a jaw-dropping display of bravura chops and soulful music at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 1969.
That said, I was not ready for his next move in the least, when this particular concert in Gaelic Park was announced: a triple bill of Blue Oyster Cult, followed by Flash, a UK prog band featuring original Yes guitarist Peter Banks, and headlined by the new Jeff Beck Group. Rumor had it that this group boasted Vanilla Fudge’s rhythm section of Carmine Appice on drums and Tim Bogert on bass. I went with my buddy Jon Tiven of the New Haven Rock Press and our buddy Christopher Chesnutt who sported a white Cadillac Brougham.
We got to Gaelic Park a bit late, sadly missing BOC’s set, but caught Flash from the press enclosure at the foot of the raised stage. They weren’t bad—but really, everyone was there for Jeff Beck. And as the clock ticked by for an HOUR AND A HALF with no Beck showing up to play, the mood of the crowd began to turn ugly. The fact that we were enduring one of the hottest and most humid summer nights on record in the rather run-down environs of greasy Gaelic Park didn’t help matters. After what seemed an eternity, finally, a yellow cab rolled up backstage visible from the press enclosure, and a nonchalant Beck hopped out. Apparently (as the story goes, who really knows?), Beck had duly jumped into a taxi in front of his Midtown hotel at the appointed hour —and the cabbie DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO GET TO GAELIC PARK (this being pre GPS-days). And, thus, they got lost, meandering hither and yon on the flyways and overpasses of Upper Manhattan searching for an off-ramp, and on into the terra incognita of the Bronx. Finally, some helpful geezer set them straight and pointed them in the right direction…
At this point the crowd was pretty riled up and about to take matters into their own hands, when Beck showed up. He hurriedly went into his dressing room and changed into an official Jeff Beck T-shirt which was being sold onsite along with warm beer in the back of the park. And without much further ado, Beck hit the stage with—yup, as predicted—Carmine and Timmy in tow– and also a lead singer, a hitherto unknown quantity in this neck of the rock woods by the name of Kim Milford, formerly of the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a cutie dressed in a shiny white satin jacket.
The new group began pumping out their thunderously leaden rhythms (it is my sad duty to report this concert accurately) on Don Nix’s “Goin’ Down”, a Freddy King favorite recently re-recorded successfully for Beck’s last album, Jeff Beck Group, Milford started prancing and singing in a high-register falsetto: “I’m goin’ doooown!! Down Down Down Down DOWN!!” And the catcalls began!! “Where’s Bob Tench? Where’s Cozy Powell?? (lead singer and drummer of the last version of the band, which had delivered such a great Carnegie Hall show earlier that year as mentioned and were really starting to catch on in NYC). “This singer sucks!! Hey Beck—you suck!!!” And on and on, growing louder and louder.
The group soldiered on through the heckling but you couldn’t quite drown out and ignore the boos. Not only had Beck seemingly betrayed his fans by replacing his crack lineup with this cack-handed crew who were definitely capable of great playing, I mean Carmine and Tim were, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that (I quite enjoyed the cheesy excesses/histrionics of the first Vanilla Fudge album and later Cactus). Kim Milford is another story, as he was summarily chucked out of the lineup after six shows and died a few years later and didn’t leave much recorded evidence to really judge his vocals by. But the Man the Crowd Were All There to See had kept them stewing and seething in the mud and the heat for —THIS, this misbegotten travesty of a heavy rock band.
But their anger didn’t really get to Beck! In fact, he started burlesquing the whole proceedings. Somebody threw one of his tour T-shirts onstage at him, and he picked it up, sniffed it warily—and then rubbed his crotch and his fanny and his armpits with it—then chucked it on his head covering his eyes with it while raising his guitar in the air and playing furiously all the while Hendrix-style. What a trooper—what a guy!! He just didn’t give a shit. (Which partially accounts for what makes Beck such an amazing player—he doesn’t fucking care, he just goes for it). And then in a twinkling of an eye—the band were off stage, at the mere 20-minute mark. Time to go!!
BOOOOOOOOOO!! went the crowd, who began pelting the stage with empty beer bottles (a practice known as “a glass ovation”). The bottles shattered on the amps and the drums, the sounds of breaking glass being picked up by the stage mics which had inexplicably not been turned off during this melee, said sounds being amplified and hurled back out through the PA into the crowd–which goaded them on even more! With these potentially injurious if not deadly projectiles whizzing over our heads, members of the press and liggers like me sought to protect our skulls with hands and pricey concert programs folded over our heads. Like the sinking of the Titanic, it was definitely A NIGHT TO REMEMBER!!
IGGY AND THE STOOGES, CAPITOL THEATER PORT CHESTER, N.Y., Feb. 2, 1974—FEARLESS DEFIANCE IN A SEA OF JERKS!
I love Iggy–doesn’t everybody (now)? I mean now he’s cleaned-up and fit for mass consumption–a veritable American Master deserving of further canonization on PBS, fer chrissakes, a la Lou Reed (said televised documentary of course white-washed / omitted all mention of Lou’s formerly venial sins vis a vis hard drug-consumption and sexual experimentation—but “those were different times”). By the time I caught this memorable concert, Raw Power, Iggy’s masterpiece for Columbia Records, had been out for nearly a year—and was not really “doing the business”, as they say. Pity as of course it’s now referenced as one of the greatest goddamn albums of all time—kinda sui genesis actually, with maybe nothing in Iggy’s vast oeuvre to date coming any Closer to the Edge of the Abyss other than its follow-up, Kill City—recorded under duress on stray weekends when Iggy was given a pass out of the psych ward to work on it—both albums featuring the added extra miracle ingredient of James Williamson’s writing and guitar playing.
In New Haven at that time, I had a young fan named Michael Caplan, who worked at Cutler’s Records where I once also worked, and then as a bus-boy at a local Chinese restaurant. Caplan was a devoted fan of my WYBC radio show “The Sounds from England (and other delicacies)”. He invited me over to his parents’ house one evening and turned me on to Raw Power, for which I am forever grateful.
I was also a big Blue Oyster Cult fan, and old friends with the band’s producer/lyricist Sandy Pearlman and lyricist Richard Meltzer, two seminal Crawdaddy magazine rock journalists originally. I used to crash with Richard on my trips to NYC when he and his girlfriend, Roni Hoffman, lived on Perry Street, with their squawking and shitting parrot flying all over the joint, and one of Richard’s art projects, dead animals preserved in Jell-o, in the fridge. (It has to be said, Richard really beat old Lester Bangs to the punch as the ur-Gonzo rock crit champeen of all time in terms of acuity of perception, literary flair, and lifestyle choices).
So this here double billing of two of my faves really whet my appetite…I had to see this!
Once again, I journeyed to Port Chester with Jon and Christopher, and thanks to Jon’s record biz connections we got access to Iggy’s dressing room before the show. Platinum blonde, half naked in fighting trim, dressed in a green grassy luau skirt and not much else (maybe some trunks or a jockstrap)– extremely friendly and happy to hold court for some time with me and my buddies. He gave us a learned dissertation on Egyptian mythology, rapping knowingly about Isis and Osiris. Somehow I mentioned I was in the possession of a Quaalude, which were all the rage back then—and he asked to see it. Whereby I duly produced one after digging deep into my jacket pocket. He immediately snatched it out of my hand and gulped it down with aplomb like so much candy. I didn’t mind!
Then the Stooges then hit the stage. Ron Asheton, dressed in some kind of Nazi regalia replete with swastika arm-band, introduced the band in German, and they tore into “Search and Destroy”. James Williamson, clutching a Les Paul and dressed in a leather jerkin with big padded shoulders and a circular hole cut in the chest area, looked like Keith Richard’s doppelgänger with henna-dyed hair. Scott pounded the tubs forcefully way up on a drum riser in the back, and Iggy went into his manic sideways boogaloo dance (a dance on the face of it apparently inspired by the young Arthur Brown). The sound was horrendous, and not in a good way at all. Maybe they hadn’t bothered with the sound-check. But they finished their first number and right away howls of derision from the crowd. This really got Iggy’s goat:
“SHUDDUPPPPP!!” he bellowed—maybe taking a page from his hero Jim Morrison’s playbook during “When the Music’s Over” as featured on the “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” album. However, he didn’t follow it with Jim’s snappy rejoinder: “Is that any way to act at a rock ’n roll concert?”
The crowd grew more vociferous in their pronounced displeasure with Iggy and the Stooges. Maybe they were all BOC fans, a motley crew to be sure. Iggy decided to focus on one particularly noisy plug-ugly lout hurling insults at him near the front, and began engaging in an amusing colloquy with the guy (a Socratic dialogue this was not:
“SHUT THE FUCK UP, YOU FUCKING FUCK!!”
“FUCK YOUUUUUUU IGGYYYYYYYYYY!”
“SHUT THE FUCKING FUCK UP, YOU FUCKING MORON!!”
Iggy turned to the band and they tore into “Gimme Danger”, which sounded pretty good, shitty acoustics and all. They finished the number and the heckling from the loud guy in the front began all over again. Iggy couldn’t take it:
“BLUE OYSTUH CULTTTTTTTT!! THIS IS FUCKING SHIT!!!”
“FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING FUCK!”
“NO, FUCK YOU, IGGYY!!!”
Iggy then outdid himself in masterful invective, and very deliberately and slowly yelled back:
“SHUDDUP, YOU FUCKING SON OF AN ITALIAN PUSHCART VENDOR!!!”
This went on throughout the entire set. The band would play a number, then Iggy would stop the show for minutes on end exchanging insults with the many numerous jerks now joining in the fun, but really honing in on his original tormentor / victim with prolonged excursions into Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty shock tactics.
Iggy heroically refused to crumble—he gave back as good as he got, and took it like a man!
Did I enjoy this spectacle? Well, gee, I have to admit that—yes, I did! I’d never seen any performer break the fourth wall quite like Iggy, although Don Van Vliet occasionally indulged in similar audience-baiting antics—but nothing nearly as pugnaciously hostile and provocative as Iggy that night.
It took some sort of combination of genius, street smarts, and sheer guts to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous douchebags aplenty in that crowd—and I’m sure, numerous other gatherings, as further documented on the Metallic KO live bootleg.
So you may ask—has anyone ever attempted to cancel me onstage like that? Oh hell yes!
And I took a page out of Iggy’s playbook; basically, ignore the fuckers–or directly confront them (but never as directly as Iggy did, I ain’t gonna risk life and limb doing so).
Some drunken guy tried hooting repeatedly through the first half of my solo set at Royal Festival Hall in London once at the Mind Your Head Festival in Fall 2001, until I finally stepped up to the mic and said, “Somebody put this guy in a taxi!”
Which brought the venue’s security detail out in full force, who then escorted the loudmouthed drunk out of the hall.
Another time at London’s Jazz Cafe at the end of a particularly grueling solo tour, some wiseass started making snarky remarks from his ringside table—so I just cranked up my amp and drowned him out.
Needless to say, I’m still here—what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
My motto, as always, being ILLEGITIMI NON CARBORUNDUM, or: DON’T LET THE BASTARDS WEAR YOU DOWN!!