by Perry Meisel
I drove up to Woodstock a few weeks ago to check up on Dolph Menzies - roadie, tour manager, drummer, gofer, mystic, tough guy, friend. Dolph has been hanging around Woodstock for about six years. He's worked a variety of gigs for a variety of stars - the Band, John Sebastian, Paul Butterfield, Dave Mason, Dr. John, Jackie Lomax, the Concert for Bangladesh - and lived in one borrowed house or another ever since he moved up there. He was taking care of Robbie Robertson's place for a while last spring after Robbie moved to Los Angeles, and now he's living in Levon Helm's unfinished recording studio with just a woodburning stove and a pile of philosophy books to keep him warm. In the studio's garage sits the old blue Monterey station-wagon that Dylan toured in for years. Dolph tried to sell it to A.J. Weberman recently but Weberman has suddenly turned assassinologist and has no time now for Dylan relics. So the car continues to sit there collecting dust along with half of the Band's old sound system and a quantity of assorted instruments. Once in a while Dolph has people over to jam, and once in a while he works out by himself on the drums that sit in the middle of the beamed and high-ceilinged room that will be the studio itself.
Dolph also continues to shuttle back and forth to the old dues scene in New Haven, where his rep as a Man of Mode has run consistently higher than anybody else's in local memory. He was already a hero back in the '60s when live rock and roll hit the Elm City as hard as it hit any town in the country. Legendary local bands had thrilled to Dolph's double-bass drums - especially Gandalf and the Motor Pickle, and Bells - and local heads had swelled to glints of recognition from the longest hair in town.
When the call came from Woodstock, Dolph's hometown credit quadrupled, and whenever he returned to the local spots after that he filled those barrooms with a glamor that made us all feel like we were On the Map at last. Maybe our State Street rock and roll would get a hearing up where the stars lived. Or maybe - as it even happened once in a while - some of us would get a chance to audition for the Big Time or at least to jam with the heavies.
So I found myself going up to Woodstock once or twice a year with the axes tucked in the back of the car. Sometimes I'd see Dolph and sometimes I'd visit a folk singer friend who also lived in one of the borrowed houses that are so famous up there. I remember playing with hacks who could hardly tune their guitars, and I remember waiting around for hours one night on a rumor that Todd Rundgren was on his way to the Nightcrawler for a jam.
There seemed to be a hip tension reigning in Woodstock then, a little annoying maybe for people who showed up from the outside, but with the all-important compensation that it existed for a reason. There were doors that had to stay closed - Dylan's and the Band's, for instance - and keeping them closed seemed to insure nothing less than the future of rock and roll itself. It was a glorious sacrifice to make because it insured our own place in rock history, too, if only by our absence.
But when Dylan and the Band started moving to L.A. one by one by one two years ago, the mythic Woodstock began to get disassembled. I remember how different the vibe was the last time I was at the Nightcrawler, auditioning for what turned out to be a remarkable funk band called Sky. Their music surprised me since it was so inconsistent with the somnolence that threatened to infect the whole atmosphere in which they lived.
In fact, Woodstock seems to have been woven out of so many contradictions that it couldn't have held on for long in any case. The sweet country setting got canceled by big city tensions; the ambience of a retreat by the prevailing deference and cool; the number of musicians by a lack of studios and clubs in which they could play. And, to top it off, a massive pop investment in the myth of Woodstock got canceled by the dearth of real musical activity there. No wonder the air festered and people began to clear out.
Dolph shakes his head at my version of the myth. "What you're talking about has croaked all right," he says, "but that's because it never really happened in the first place."
I protest. Everybody in music has had Woodstock on the brain at one time or another.
"Then that's the only place it ever existed," he replies. "This is just a place where a lot of musicians happen to live. All the stuff about a big scene is just a media invention. You know, music didn't put Woodstock on the map. It was an artists' colony long before Albert Grossman got a house up here and started bringing Dylan around. That was in the days when Dylan could sit outside one of the cafes playing chess or something and people would drive by yelling 'Hi, Bob!' out the window and then keep on going down the road."
Dolph gets up to chop more wood for the stove. It's suddenly cold in the room. He says while he works that Woodstock has too often been a giant outhouse for city people. "They come up here to lay back," he says, "and they lay back so far that they end up laid out."
The talk drifts to the music that's going down in the area now. Butterfield, for example, has just finished an album at Bearsville and is thinking about getting a band together so he can go on tour again. The new stuff in town, though, seems to be high school rock like Foghat. I ask if that's what's happening in Woodstock these days.
"Well, Foghat doesn't even live here," says Dolph. "They record at Bearsville and their roadies are around from time to time. But the whole crew's on the road most of the year anyway. That's how you make money, you know, by working, working, working. You go to Europe, you tour the United States, Japan, then back to the studio for another album, then maybe a month off before it starts all over again. But the Band would never do that. Maybe a month or two on, and then three or four months off. We never worked steady just because the guys didn't want to."
"You worked all the tours?"
"Most of them. But, you know, at the end of every tour it's 'Thanks a lot, good-bye, get lost.'
And then when the next one starts, you've got to hassle it out all over again. And you never know how much you'll get paid, either. Sometimes it's $250 a day, sometimes it's $75 a week. And sometimes the $75'll come out on the check as $69.50. Everybody's burning everybody else."
"This is the Band?"
"No, man, it's the accountants. They run the music business. They've got everybody so tied up and criss-crossed that nobody knows what's going on. There's one big firm that handles everybody who's anybody in rock and roll. And the business is their business after it's all said and done.
"They've got the screws on the musicians most of all. Guys like the Band are in such a complicated financial and contractual situation that they can't ever try to do anything. Whatever they touch has got some string attached. It's such a mess that they're better off just hanging out the way they do."
"Don't they get itchy to play?"
"Not any more. They emptied their rocks paying dues with Ronnie Hawkins way before Dylan even entered the scene. When they were finally booked to play with Dylan in 1965, Levon decided to forget the gig because the band wasn't getting featured billing. So he stayed home while the rest of the group played those first jobs."
The stove has died down again, so Dolph loads some more planks on the cutting block.
"Roadies are always in a strange position," he says, returning to that theme as he splinters the wood with an ax. "I remember a story I heard about the last night of the 1974 Dylan tour," he says, and proceeds to recall a backstage narrative that somebody told him about that evening in L.A. The guy with the story says he came walking through a dressing room area about an hour before the show and sees Bill Graham screaming bloody hell at a bunch of cops who are hassling him about crossing the security lines. Graham's yelling that he'll throw the cops out if they don't show him a little respect. Meanwhile one of the roadies comes running out and gets in between Graham and the cops saying, all right now, let's just calm down, this here's the last night of a long tour and we're all a little tired out. Graham just keeps on spitting and cursing and the cops are getting hotter too. But it's the roadie, of course, who eventually gets carted off to the joint. The next morning the guy who told the story is looking around for this roadie in the hotel, and he finds out he's still in the cooler. So he wakes up the managers and Graham and everybody else and screams his lungs out until they send a lawyer down to bail the roadie out. It turns out that the feds had found an alimony charge on the guy back in San Francisco, so they were ready to ship him up there and give him the works. Without all the screaming, the guy would've been left behind and forgotten.
We drove over to the Bear for dinner, where I waited 20 minutes for Butterfield to vacate the men's room. The Bear is one of the few decent places to eat at in town ("The rest are tourist traps," says Dolph), and it's full of flanneled scenoids who converse in a quiet, cool hush like the one that prevails in the deserted roads of the village. I remember being cautioned years ago by my folk-singer friend never to put anybody down in Woodstock. "You just don't do that kind of thing around here," he said after I'd badmouthed Rundgren or somebody. The caution makes sense here tonight, where an unscrupulous cough or a prolonged guffaw would earn me the evil eye.
Eventually we drive back over the curving nighttime roads to the studio. This time we go down to the basement, so I can see the new sound system one of Dolph's friends on the Woodstock Road Association is building. It's lightweight and compact even though it can drive the hell out of its powerful amplifiers.
"We're the guys who manufacture the glitter and the glamor," says Dolph while he flips open amps and demonstrates how easy it is for one guy to move the new sound cabinets around. "We're professionals," he says. "We know just what to do and just how to do it." Todd Rundgren's Utopia, he remembers, went on the road a couple of times before they'd figured out the logistics of moving unusually large amounts of equipment quickly and efficiently every day for a couple of months. They even had to cut both tours short because the equipment problem became so troublesome. Dolph uses the story to remind me that being a roadie is a high skill profession that's crucial to big-time rock and roll performance.
When rock got large and loud in the late '60s, he tells me, a need developed for people who knew how to handle the existing sound systems, and who could build new ones capable of producing the kind of massive sound that rock had suddenly invented to the collective amazement of a generation. I remember how tenuous the sound was at concerts back then, how feedback and muffled voices were the norm rather than the exception before equipment became a rock concept in its own right. Lots of good tech people came out of the Fillmores, for example, and colonies of roadies eventually grew up in certain places around the country like Woodstock, L.A., and the Bay Area.
But there are really two kinds of roadies, Dolph explains as we go back upstairs. There's the groupie type, the star-struck moony from the same layer as the wine-and-reds set out there in the first row yelling "boogie" at Brubeck. And then there's the techie type, the professional who gets hired for a special talent. Dolph is chopping wood again and handling the ax like a veteran lumberjack while he's telling me this stuff. Some of the guys in the Road Association, for example, had electronics training in the army or worked for technical firms before moving over to rock and roll.
Then Dolph besieged my ears for awhile with the kind of technical talk you get accustomed to from equipment freaks. Then a hesitant story about some lawyer or accountant trying to burn the Road Association out of plane tickets back to New York after they'd flown somewhere on a work order that turned out to be a ruse.
The stories piled up one on top of the other till I wondered if it was just me that felt the gloom. Sure, Dolph talked about rock and roll magic, too - flipping out back-stage, for instance, when Sebastian sang his standards - but he impressed me primarily as a man of rock and roll realities. Dolph has always been a level-headed guy and now I was afraid that he saw things a little too clearly. The guy who represented the Big Time to all of us back in dues city, the guy who hauled fuel for our star-tripping fantasies every time he screeched into town with his laid-back smile, was totally demystified on the subject of success.
When Dolph closed the door behind me as I left to return to New York, he also closed the door on my old dreams. Not that I could ever feel anything but love for Dolph himself. It was just that the world looked a little darker to me at that moment. It appeared that you couldn't really make it in music unless you were hooked up way deep in the corporate structure. It seemed that those fantasies of democracy and discovery had to remain fantasies, that you had to be willing to make the dues circuit your version of success unless you had the capacity for creative isolation that roadhouses and crummy barrooms don't help you to develop.
I looked for rock and roll radio as I shoved the car onto the Thruway at midnight. I found the Byrds singing "Eight Miles High," and I felt a little appeased because the soothing glow was still there in the sound like it was supposed to be. My mind reentered rock and roll dreams for awhile and I remembered the tables down at Hungry Charley's where we once sat with Woodstock hushes of our own. I wondered why I kept hanging out and kept playing even after the music and the people had both become absurd. And I wondered, too, why a grand disillusion was bumming me out so badly tonight when I thought I'd given up rock and roll for just such a reason more than a year ago.
The highway was painfully dark as I passed through New Paltz and Newburgh, and I wondered if these towns, too, had small-time rock and rollers with a conscience about Woodstock. Small-time began to bang around in my head, and I remembered the excitement we used to feel about the big gig at the Zodiac or the Dial-Tone Lounge.
The kind of supercompetence that Dolph believed in as a rock and roll professional was really what I'd wanted from rock and roll too. After the first few years of mind-blown ecstasy in front of screaming amplifiers, the trip refined itself into one of rhythmic architecture instead. But when you play in small towns, it's hard to find people who think the way that you do.
The contradictions began to mount up like the fatigue that haunted me outside Suffern. I thought of those civilian freaks trying to lose their egos by dancing to the music of us enlisted freaks driven by a cult of consummate egoism, the cult of stardom. It was a myth we all participated in gladly since we were led to believe that a rock and roll hierarchy was necessary for rock and roll's survival. But this was a strange state of affairs for a music and worldview that promised success to anybody who went out and got a guitar. I remembered Kerouac, too, and the myth of bop prosody, and I thought again of how dangerously easy it was to see yourself as an artist in pop America.
I finally got jazz radio before the Tappan Zee Bridge, and I was able to relax for the first time since I'd left Woodstock. I remembered playing alto as a kid just down the eastern shore of the river I was crossing. Geography was becoming too logical when a strange effect of light intruded from the south. I turned and saw Manhattan fiercely bright in the clearest air of winter. Yet the beaming networks managed to contain themselves in a cunningly aesthetic way, as though whole city blocks were incandescent barges in some Renaissance jubilee glazed on canvas.
I suddenly felt a little like Nick does when he thinks he's understood Gatsby, nostalgic for fresh starts even though they never seem to last. The city's hard brightness reminded me that it was hustle alone that kept things going and lights set up in the darkness that kept things important. And then I thought of Dolph again, hauling lamps up thick cables in gloomy concert halls like an act of speech.
Originally published in The Village Voice, March 16, 1976