PROLOGUE – Just like the Seattle grunge scene in the early 90’s delivered a sizable litter of pups like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Screaming Trees, The Melvins and Coffin Break, 1969 was a very similar milestone year in rock music.
New and established rock bands were either releasing their debut albums, or their follow-up volumes: Johnny Winter’s “Second Winter” Ten Years After’s “Shhh,” LP that featured a rockin’ version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” Steppenwolf’s “Monster,” Chicago’s “Chicago Transit Authority” and Santana’s awesome self titled LP with the “lion” cover art.
Cream’s farewell LP “Goodbye Cream” was released in January of 1969. In August, Clapton came back with a new band and album called: Blind Faith…a double whammy. Same for Led Zep’s self-titled LP, and Led Zeppelin II. Creedence Clearwater Revival was extremely busy that year – three home runs in the same inning: “Bayou Country,” “Green River” and “Willie & the Poorboys.” Who does that?
The rock convoy headed to our town originated on the weekend of August 15, 16, & 17, 1969, with a concert event the size of a city. Promoters sold 185,000 tickets but thousands more arrived, forcing organizers to promote it as a free concert. “Woodstock”, and its three days of peace and music made history and became the mother of all festivals – hands down.
With the release of the documentary’s soundtrack the airwaves were filled with a plethora of artists that performed at that massive event. From White Lake, NY, the festival’s many bands played venues in all points in between as they headed west in a psychedelicized frenzy that rivaled the gold rush of 1849.
In the fall of 1969, El Paso was soon becoming a desert oasis for many of those traveling bands.
IN THE BEGINNING
I was the proverbial high school sophomore that didn’t fit in. Classes had just begun and rock music had become an escape for me on a daily basis. I couldn’t wait to get home to fire up a few of my LP’s on the hi-fi: Creedence’s debut LP and Three Dog Night’s Live at the Forum, come to mind.
By contrast, school friends listened to 920 KELP’s top 40 pop, soul and dance music… a caldron of syrupy songs with a predictable rotation every hour. It was all friends talked about; “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies, Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy”, or the Spiral Staircase’s “More Today than Yesterday”.
Yikes. Its no wonder I ran in a different direction.
I skipped school dances and the house parties I would be invited to, as classmate’s attempts to sway me continually fell by the wayside. Blame it on the black and white era of the Ed Sullivan show, and other variety programs during the early to mid-sixties like Shindig and Hullabaloo.
Bands like the Stones, The Zombies and The Kinks’ rock styles caught my ear. At age ten I saw the Kinks perform “All Day and All of the Night” on TV, and I was hooked.
The following week I bused it downtown and bought the 45. I played that first rock record of mine daily. Then I lent it to a cleaning girl mom had hired temporarily and I never saw my 45 or her again. It cost me a dollar!
There were a chosen few acquaintances I could discuss rock music with at school. During one of those moments David Barnes, a good friend, happened by. Listening in, he asked if I had tuned in to EP’s FM station on night-time radio.
“If you like rock, you’re gonna like what they play”, he said with a wry grin. Since I drew and sketched almost daily, my single speaker radio provided the background music while I colored or inked my drawings. That night I did tune in to that FM station and my mind was instantly catapulted into an untapped world of new bands and songs I had never heard before.
Stuff like “Hot Smoke and Sassafrass” by the Bubble Puppy, “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zep, “Cold Turkey” by Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Santana’s “Hope You’re Feeling Better” and a cover of “I am the Walrus” by Spooky Tooth.
Then I began noticing that a few bands were touring and stopping by EP. Spirit performed at the Liberty Hall Auditorium formerly located in the center of downtown. The band’s hit at the time was “1984.” I had asked my mom for a few dollars to buy a ticket, but she was reluctant to let me go.
Then, a couple months later, I heard Nazz was gonna play the Coliseum. I really liked their rockin’ song called “Open My Eyes” ( Todd Rundgren cut his teeth with that band.)
A very funny guy, Jim Paternoster, transferred to our school and I quickly befriended him, picking up on his rock and blues musical preferences. He caught the Nazz show and said it was a real good one. I stood there feeling like I should have gone.
Sometime later The Vanilla Fudge arrived in town with their fusion of psychedelic & blues songs like “You Keep Me Hanging On.”
I kicked myself a third and final time and vowed that I would be attending the next Coliseum concert.
I glued myself to the radio and scanned the entertainment section of the Herald Post nightly. I listened between the song breaks for any radio spots that sounded like an announcement, not a commercial for some damn car dealer on Dyer Street or Malooly’s Furniture Store.
Towards the end of September – early October, I heard it come over the airwaves: Steppenwolf at the Coliseum…with The Bubble Puppy opening. I liked Steppenwolf’s relentless guitar-driven rock and John Kay’s raspy bluesy voice. Advance tix were $4, and there was no question this time – I was going and no more getting second-hand reviews.
I caught a bus downtown where the Central Ticket Agency was located, about a block from the Main Library. A small unassuming office, I bought my ticket and grabbed a short stack of letter size flyers with the band’s picture and concert info.
On Monday, I posted them around the school’s bulletin boards as upper-class men laughed and smirked – and I could’ve cared less. My gut feeling said this was the start of something big.
But I still wasn’t aware of the musical storm that was headed straight into our town and the cow barn called the Coliseum.
The night of the show I arrived around dusk – just before the doors opened. A large crowd had already gathered outside, and I made my way into the big gathering amidst college types, guys and ladies averaging at least eight years on me. I felt a bit out of place but there were no stares or comments.
My first big rock concert wasn’t without questions as I listened to some of the chatter and simultaneously wondered what that pungent
burning smell was hovering above everyone’s heads. The doors opened and I made way to the floor where a sea of metal folding chairs were quickly being occupied by the evening’s aficionados.
I was about a hundred feet from the stage in the center and felt pretty good about this accomplishment of mine. The concert wasn’t a sellout, but by showtime the crowd had grown considerably to several thousand.
The lights went out, the crowd cheered loudly and San Antonio’s own Bubble Puppy blasted the air with their hit single, “Hot Smoke and Sassafrass”. Much to my delight, the band included a lengthy drum solo that had me grinning from ear to ear.
The Puppy performed well and I still couldn’t believe I was there to see it all.
After intermission, the Coliseum’s interior suddenly went jet black and seconds later, with the spotlights aimed directly at John Kay, Steppenwolf blew the roof off with “Born To Be Wild”.
A slow-churning blues number that I had heard before, Kay sings “God damn the pusher” multiple times during the chorus. Now, I’m still wet behind the ears, so in a distracted moment I actually thought the show was gonna end right there with his arrest.
John Kay and the band were solid throughout their performance. Their set included all the band’s hits and left everyone standing and cheering at the end of the show.
I walked away with a such a feeling of euphoria, I wished I could have saved that sensation in a bottle as a souvenir.
Back at school, friends listened wide-eyed as I recalled the show’s rockin’ music, drum solo and the experience overall. I was asked what concert I was going to next, and I said “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out!”
I did wonder to myself which rock band would visit El Paso next…and that my friends, is another story!
In the meantime, what was your first rock concert at the Coliseum? Share your memories with me in the comment section below.