Wednesday, February 10, 2016

BEACH BOYS & STEVE MILLER BAND, 1978


Seeing as how punk was influenced in part by surf music, it makes perfect sense that I was into surf music myself well before punk came along. When I was ten years old, my cousin Danny played me a little song called "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris. It blew my mind and sent me into a frenzy of discovering other surf groups like Jan & Dean, the Ventures (who became my all-time favorites), and finally, the Beach Boys. I started with "Surfin' Safari" and "Fun Fun Fun" of course. Then came the day I heard a later-period song of theirs called "Heroes and Villains." Whoa. This wasn't the Beach Boys I knew, but something else entirely. My mind was blown all over again, but in a different way this time.

The summer of 1976 was unquestionably the happiest of my entire life. America celebrated its Bicentennial that summer and the party was a total blast from July straight through to September. Swept up in the spirit of this nationwide shindig, my folks packed up the car, placed me in the back seat, and drove me to Florida, where I not only visited my current city of Orlando for the very first time, but also watched the premiere of the Beach Boys' NBC special on our hotel room's TV set. The music and the tropical surroundings combined to hypnotic effect, and there was no turning back.

Needless to say the Boys were my main soundtrack for the rest of that glorious summer, which culminated with the first two major concerts I ever attended, headlined respectively by Neil Diamond and Liberace. Those shows were a double consolation prize for my mother's inability to get me tickets to the show I REALLY wanted to see, Elton John at Madison Square Garden. Both gigs were fabulous, though, and they both greatly expanded my 11-year-old mind in different ways. I'll never forget Liberace's lightning-speed piano runs or his glittering jewels, nor will I ever forget Neil leading the audience in setting off the flashbulbs on their cameras in unison at the count of three. The resulting blinding light filled the entire stadium and to this day I swear that flash told me I was going to be an entertainer myself someday.

But anyway, back to the Beach Boys. At the end of that Bicentennial summer, Giants Stadium officially opened in East Rutherford, NJ, just on the other side of New York City. Initially intended as a football field, it wasn't long before the idea of having concerts there was successfully pitched to the powers that be. And on June 25, 1978, Giants Stadium held its very first concert, with the Beach Boys and the Steve Miller Band as headliners. A dream come true for me, as I adored both bands at the time. This time Mom was able to score the precious tickets, and so we made it my end-of-school year party. And what a party it was.

It was a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon just perfect for a Beach Boys show. We set out fashionably early and by the time we got to East Rutherford, the highway leading up to the stadium was filled with pedestrians hoofing it from the nearby bus stops to the show. Hitchhiking was commonplace in those days, and Mom and I figured we had nothing to lose by giving a small band of hikers a ride to the parking lot. The ones we picked up turned out to be a lovely, laid-back bunch of hippies who treated us like their long lost friends for the privilege. Once at the stadium, we approached the nearest t-shirt dealer in sight for a Beach Boys souvenir t-shirt. It turned out to be a totally bootleg, very badly silkscreened piece of sweatshop shit which hardly fit me despite a tag claiming it was my size. Oh well.

Our seats were in the upper tier, pretty high up but facing the stage with a nice view of the panorama of people spread out all over us. The loud, booming sound system ensured we'd get to hear everything. Some folks had brought binoculars for a closer view of the stage, and the folks sitting next to us generously shared theirs with us. The sun was beating down on us and it was hot, with Mom and I both dressed sparingly but foolishly not bothering to use sunscreen. This unwise decision would haunt us both much later.

The concert began with a local group bearing the unsavory name of Stanky Brown. Though they were briefly signed to Sire Records, they never found national fame, and with good reason -- their music was every bit as "stanky" as the name implied. We then had to endure a set by one of the lamest soft-rock bands of the '70s, Pablo Cruise, which was exactly what you would've expected, "Whatcha Gonna Do" and all. But then things got good. The buzz going around the stadium was that the Steve Miller Band's entire set was about to be broadcast live on WNEW-FM and other stations throughout the northeast. And when they began blasting 'NEW through the sound system as the stage was being set up for Steve, the crowd went fucking hog wild. The jumbo screens began flashing "HOW ABOUT THAT??? WE'RE ON THE RADIO!!! LET'S MAKE SOME NOISE!!!" And indeed, some folks were making noise as loud as possible, perhaps hoping their loved ones at home could hear them above the massive crowds. (And you thought my "radio debut" was on WFMU!)

It was the height of Steve's late '70s success with "Fly Like An Eagle" and "Book Of Dreams." Though I'd already discovered punk by then, I was still listening to some of what's now called classic rock, and I loved both those albums to death, especially the spacey, highly experimental synthesizer interludes opening and linking the songs. In that regard, Steve didn't disappoint me when he gave "Eagle" an extended space intro leading into a trippy ten minute version. He put on a great show from start to end, and I'll never forget the image of him playing guitar with the axe positioned upside down behind his neck. As much as I loathed Pablo Cruise, their bassist deserves some credit for saving the show by loaning his gear to Steve's bassist when his rig blew up midway through the set. The encore was an interesting one, starting on a new song called "Heart Like A Wheel" which wouldn't even be a hit until years later, and finishing on an honest-to-goodness reggae version of "The Joker" putting a welcome new spin on his well-worn standard. And their whole set was aired live on local radio, and I now have a bootleg CD of the original broadcast. It takes me back there every time.


By contrast, the day's headliners weren't aired live on 'NEW, and no recordings have surfaced of their set. But there they were, the group I'd waited so long to see... THE group, the classic Beach Boys lineup of Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, and Al Jardine. The REAL Beach Boys, not a cheap Mike-led knockoff. They came out and immediately launched into a killer set, filled with all their hits and then some. That shitty bootleg t-shirt I'd been scammed for in the parking lot at least now made a nifty banner to wave around in the aisles as I danced and sang my ass off. But this was no ordinary Beach Boys gig, I would soon find out.

After 45 minutes or so, everyone suddenly left the stage. Everyone, that is, except Mike. Then, a different backing band came out and suddenly it turned into the fucking Mike Love Show! Huh??? It was Mike's new, very short-lived side project, Celebration, who had a horrid new album out from which they played four whole songs. According to my sources, this was the one and only time they ever hijacked a Beach Boys show. I can't help but wonder if Mike strong-armed his cousins into letting his new band hog the stage like that. Fortunately, that part of the show was soon over and then Brian and his brothers came back and joined them and kicked right into "Heroes And Villains" of all songs, and all was well again. Of course you had the "Good Vibrations" singalong and "Surfin' USA" and "Fun Fun Fun," and I was on my feet in the aisles for the whole thing and it was awesome. I'll always be thankful I saw the classic Beach Boys lineup with all three Wilson brothers while they could still put on a rocking live show.

The sun had been beating down on my mom and I for over six hours and again, we'd forgotten our sunscreen. And so we took home the worst sunburns of our entire lives. My burns were practically second degree. On our way out of the parking lot, screaming for some lotion to put on our legs, we came across the exact same band of hitchhikers we'd driven to the parking lot and gave them a ride back to their bus stop. They were such cool people. I still remember them vividly. The atmosphere throughout the whole day had been calm and peaceful. Everyone was there to have fun. I know I did. But damn, I thought my legs would never heal.