In my first two years at The Buffalo News, I was the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of Clark Kent.
By day, I was the mild-mannered reporter in jacket and tie, assigned to the Western New York desk. By night, in T-shirt and tattered jeans, I was a superstar in the making, a diamond in the rough, the bass player and occasional singer in a band called Lavender Hill.
Like many an aspiring idol, my career plan was simple: Keep my day job to pay the rent and buy groceries until the group got a recording contract and we all became rich and famous.
We wrote songs. We acquired a manager. We practiced relentlessly in a ramshackle rear cottage near the railroad tracks in Black Rock, incurring the wrath of one of the neighbors, a beer-soaked retired Great Lakes sailor named Lou.
One night, instead of calling the police to shut us up, Lou fired shots at the cottage. We hit the floor, killed the lights and dialed 911. After the SWAT team arrived and talked Lou into giving up his rifle, we turned down our amplifiers and paid better attention to the provisions of the city noise ordinance.
When we weren’t practicing, we played the bars. This was 1969. Tens of thousands of baby boomers were turning 18, the legal drinking age then, and bar owners everywhere decided that live rock music was the way to lure them in.
We were not one of the city’s top-tier bands, so getting gigs was a big deal for us. We were always ready to load up our battered Volkswagen van and show up for whatever we could get. For a couple of my bandmates, it was a major source of income.
As we got more experienced, a local nightclub booking agent started to call us in as last-minute substitutes when one of his bigger bands got a more lucrative offer and went elsewhere. Once, billed as another group, we opened for Bob Seger in a Catholic high school gym.
Needless to say, we were acutely aware of the Woodstock festival. We had seen the ads for months. Three days of peace and music. I taped the poster to the wall above my shelf of records. If we didn’t have a gig that weekend in August, I wanted to be there.
But at the end of July we got one. It was Shell’s Lounge on Broadway on the city’s Polish East Side. Two nights, Friday and Saturday at $85 each night. Five sets.
Usually we played three sets, 45 minutes to an hour long. Fortunately, we knew enough songs – Rolling Stones, Beatles, Doors, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival – to fill five if we had to. As for Woodstock, well, I just wasn’t going.
The Buffalo News didn’t plan on being there, either, until the enormity of Woodstock suddenly became apparent. One of the editors, aware of my musical moonlighting and my affinity for the counterculture, called me over to his desk and asked me to cover it.
Well, I said, I’d love to, but I can’t. My band has a gig. They can’t do it without me, and I can’t let them down. So they dispatched my colleague Jeff Simon instead.
As for Shell’s, it was our first time there and our last time. Two or three dozen kids ventured into the dim, muggy back room each night, but the owner contended that we should have attracted more. We thought we should get more than a measly $85 for playing so many sets.
On our breaks, we caught fresh air on the concrete front steps, looking out on barren Broadway. One of these days we would have bigger and better gigs, we told ourselves, like the one that was proclaiming a new era 300 miles away at Max Yasgur’s farm.