John Wiesenthal is a name that always crops up whenever the story of the Soft White Underbelly is discussed, but up to now, I've never known much about him.
To be honest, I've always been a little "fuzzy" regarding the actual part John played and what his contribution was to the genesis of SWU, so I decided I'd like to try and find out a bit more information.
Buck Dharma kindly brokered an introduction to John on my behalf, who subsequently offered to answer a few of my questions.
Here's the result of that endeavour...
Q: First off - to be honest, I don't know much about you except for the one famous "fact" that Jackson Browne taught you to surf in exchange for guitar lessons and that you also - later - invented the Bird of Paradise capo... That's about it.
John: That Jackson taught me to surf is a howler. He was my junior buddy who I took surfing. While I was driving he was learning to play an E chord. It went from there.
But Jackson is the real thing. THE most important fact here is that I taught Jackson to play guitar on surfing safaris in our high school days. I put a pen in his hand and said "let's write".
Among a hundred other interesting things, I introduced him to Bob Dylan, whom I'd met moments before, at Albert Grossman's party following BD's debut concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on 29 Feb 1964. I'd brought Jackson and Steve Noonan as guests of Zicel (sister of Victor) Maymudes.
Did you know that he wrote the song that made the Eagles fly: "Take It Easy"? At fifteen he was in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and their first album contained his songs: "Melissa", and "Holding". "Clear Light", an early Allman Brothers Band, recorded his "Street Singer", penned with Noonan. Go to Hollywood or Nashville and you'll find that Jackson is a hallowed composer. Study his lyrics and his sheer record output.
Jackson had come east with Greg Copeland and his friend Adam Saylor (See "Song for Adam"). Greg and Adam went to Morocco and India and Jackson stayed with Steve in the pre-chic Bowery section of NY while Steve was serving out alternative CO service with Vista.
Late Feb - early March '67 Jackson replaced Tim Buckley as back-up to Nico at her Dom residency in the presence of Andy Warhol, Leonard Cohen, Jack Eliott etc
I loaned him the Standel guitar and Ampeg amp so he could play the gig - the same combination he would later use on Nico's "Chelsea Girl" album. By the way - that Ampeg amp was later used by SWU but was NOT the one that recently appeared on eBay...
March 19, 1967 - I brought Jackson, Steve Noonan and Tim Buckley out to play at one of the dorms (JSouth lounge) at Stony Brook. Future BOC soundman George Geranios engineered the performance and it was an unbelievably fantastic concert.
Buckley was tripping on LSD and singing in his ultra-high falsetto no one who was there will ever forget that night. And it was Jackson's first concert...
Picture this - Jackson fresh out of Sunny Hills High School, surfer, lyric genius (this is an absolute fact) going with Nico, star of La Dolce Vita, the most glamorous woman in the world! Listen to "The Birds Of Saint Mark's" - that's Nico. Nice way to start a career.
Q: When did you enrol at Stony Brook and what was your official subject of study?
John: I went to Stony Brook, after a year at LA City College in September 1964. My majors evolved from Undecided to Art to Sociology to Philosophy.
During my first year at Stony Brook, Dave Roter was across the hall, rooming with Rick Magram. I was studying guitar with Venezuelan master, Rodrigo Riera.
Dave and I were always playing and my practicing drove him up the wall, bringing on threats that If I played that study one more time he'd smash my guitar. I did. He didn't.
Also on our hall that year was George Geranios - later BOC's engineer. Gary Sloane and Tony Hilfiger, another guitarist with a band (Moses - Tony had a beard - And The Three Disciples)...
Q: Whenever the history of SWU is mentioned, you always get a name-check as being an initial resident of "ground-zero", namely the "house on the hill". Can you tell me a bit about how that came about?
John: The "house on the hill" was a two story colonial style building situated on Bennetts Road, East Setauket (just outside the University) and should be referred to in future writings as the place where it all started, although this area has since been re-developed...
Q: When did you move in and who was there originally?
John: Dave Roter and I moved into the Bennetts Road House (BRH) in the Fall of 1966. The original occupants of the BRH included me, Tom Stone, a pipe smoking philosophy student, Roter, sometimes Sue "Suzy Creamcheese" Gerchick, Danny Englehardt (also a guitar player) and later Andrew Winters. Andy who was a high school student from Smithtown couldn't take living at home and moved in with us.
Visitors to the BRH included Jackson Browne, Steve Noonan, Greg Copeland and Adam Saylor.
Around this time, there was a story by an undercover reporter, Jerry (?) which painted a picture of the life for the Long Island Press (or Newsday?) that was featured in the Sunday edition.
Q: How did the famous jam sessions come about - and who took part?
John: It was summer of 67 when it all started to happen. Don Roeser, a friend of Andy, returned from his college in Potsdam NY and we all started playing together - we played all the songs - Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton.
Jeff Richards, a fellow art student at Stony Brook started to show interest in our lifestyle, and also came around. I was "dating" Joan Shapiro at the time and painting in classes with Allen Kaprow, Nam June Paik and Ed Countey.
When summer arrived I started working with the illustrator/cartoonist/animator Randall Enos and that turned into animation work and meeting Allen Lanier - he had been doing musical sound for Ted Steeg Productions when we met, a NYC film house. We talked about rock. I told him about the house and Allen came out and started jamming. The date for this was probably August '67.
Q: Tell me a bit about the musical styles of the different participants. For example - did Allen initially play guitar or keyboards - and I read that Meltzer said of Andy Winters that "finger-pickin geetar was his speciality, but somebody hadda play bass" - so did Andy originally play guitar, and only switched to bass later?
John: Allen played classical piano and had some formal training. He was miles ahead of me as a creative improviser in the vocabulary of western music.
I was more an avant-gardist looking for new sounds like (for me) Schoenberg, Cage and Cecil Taylor. So I was interested in the idea of an existential encounter through music. Anything goes: heavy bolts on the keys of an electronic organ, magnetic oscillation of the Farfisa's tone generators through the pickups of a guitar. Banging on anything...
Don and Albert (and Jeff Latham) had a copy band back in college. Zero interest for me...
I think Andy started bass around the time we moved to the new band house at Casa Sapienza. He had a lust for rhythm, but not a very developed sense of harmony (a necessity for a bass player). He tried to make up for it with macho rhythmic posing. But since I wasn't particularly interested in traditional harmony then, it didn't really matter to me. I was out to save the world from nuclear folly and doom. (Still am)...
Q: When did Pearlman get involved in the picture?
John: Throughout this period I was deeply engaged in the discussion of philosophy, history, culture and rock with Meltzer and Pearlman. In 67 they'd started writing for the magazine Crawadddy! Meltzer had written The Aesthetics of Rock and it seemed like the magazine connection could boost us along the path to saving the world with R n R.
Q: At some point these ad hoc somewhat casual jam sessions between friends started to coalesce into something a bit more formalised - namely the beginnings of an actual band... my impression is that from early on you were a major factor in making sure the band held together long enough for their atoms to bind together - for example, I believe you were instrumental in organising a new band house - when did that happen and where was that?
John: Well... people had quickly started to pay attention to what was happening and I realized that when summer ended everyone would scatter to the four winds, so that's when I decided to rent a house.
I managed to find us a summer cottage at 625 Jefferson Avenue in St. James NY owned by Salvatore Sapienza. As to when this was, I'm sure I leased the place at the beginning of the semester - end of August or beginning of September '67.
Q: Now Albert says you were acting almost as the band's promoter at this time - for example, apparently you sold shares in the band at one point?
John: The "shares"in the band were simply posters that I sold for 25 cents (they were a big orange circle on a blue background that said 25˘ and we called 'em "shares in the band". It bought a bag of groceries.
Q: I think it's fairly well-known that SWU's first gig was supposedly 2 sets where SWU backed up Steve Noonan at the University on 20 Oct 1967, playing his songs rather than your own.
However - here's a confusing thing I read in the Wed 25 Oct issue of The Statesman - it mentions that "Irving College had its first program last Friday in ABC lounge of Washington Irving College. The program was a coordinated happening of "Jon Wiesenthal's band, a neo-primitive sculpture by ex-addict James Gadson Sr and dancing."
I presume "Jon Wiesenthal" was you - and thus "Jon Wiesenthal's band" would be SWU? Is that right - if so, the problem comes when you look at the date - "last Friday" MUST refer to Friday 20th Oct - the SAME date as the two set gig with Steve Noonan. Thus - this MUST have been an afternoon "happening".
So - if this "happening" happened - then MAYBE THIS was SWU's first ever public performance?
John: Your "happening" notice is well taken. Google Alan Kaprow, our most influential art professor. He was the philosopher-aesthetician-artist who started the Happening art form. Meltzer and I had participated in some large-scale events by Kaprow. It sounds like that event (which I do not remember) was a mixed media event and was called a "Happening" by the promoters.
Q: The only gigs I know about for 1967 are these:
1: Friday 20 Oct 1967: Stony Brook University Gym - 2 shows (8pm & 11pm) Steve Noonan & SWU/Holy Modal Rounders/Phil Ochs
2: 21-26 November 1967: The Blues Bag - Café au Go-Go, New York City: Soft White Underbelly/James Cotton/Richie Havens
3: Friday 15 Dec 1967: ABC Lounge, Irving College, Stony Brook (The Irving Christmas Party)
What - if anything - do you recall of these shows? And were there any others?
John: There was also a Halloween dance - see the poster.
The December concert was called a "Beethoven's Birthday Party". That poster is probably around somewhere.
Allen's girlfriend Hope Nigro was part of a school planning committee and she set up some of the dorm shows for us.
In March (Zodiac Aries) there was a themed "The Lion And the Lamb" dance. I painted a large Lamb mural as a stage backdrop.
I had gotten some basement space from a dorm administrator and some money from a student government committee to set up a silk screen shop. I set out to change the face of the campus bulletin boards by replacing mimeographed posters with my colorful versions. The posters came from that effort. I did all the designs.
Q: Actually, I've never seen a definite account of how long you remained an active playing participant in SWU - how many gigs do you think you actually played?
Q: So what was your last gig with the band?
John: I'd say that the Blues Bag was probably the last time I took the stage with the guys.
Q: Tell me a bit about that Blues Bag gig - for example, I don't have an exact date - it ran over 6 days - did SWU just play on one day? And I don't suppose you remember which day it was of the run?
John: I couldn't tell you. Only that it was a one night stand. It is possible that Howlin' Wolf was also on that bill. Jim Morrison came in and I talked with him about Rock musicians bringing the Vietnam War to an end. He agreed to help. Unfortunately our conversation never went any farther than that.
I also had a wonderful conversation with Havens. Great man, gentle soul.
By the way - I played Hammond organ at this show. On all other performances with the band, I played guitar...
During this time we were doing free-form improvisation inspired by Jackson Pollock's painting and Cecil Taylor's piano. AVANT GARDISM. I'm no keyboard player and my experiments on the organ were just that: blind (but not deaf) explorations of the spontaneously created harmonic and rhythmic environment we joyfully spawned.
In keeping with this, at the Cafe au Go-Go, Richard Meltzer shouted "Piss, Piss" into the microphone and stuck his head in the bass drum.
Q: What other SWU gigs do you remember - playing or otherwise?
John: February 2, 1968 a performance with Country Joe, and Jim Kweskin at the Village Theatre (later to become Fillmore East.)
[ Note - as far as I know, the Fillmore was down the road apiece - the Village became the Anderson ]
There was a club in Port Jefferson owned by a retired football pro, Frank Imperiale. They had a psychedelic light show and we played there maybe more than once.
Another excellent band on the scene was called 3/5 Alice and I think we did some gigs with them.
Q: By the way - whilst you were still on the scene in that Jefferson Ave house, did any demos or recording of any kind take place? I'm trying to work out when SWU first got recorded and what was it.
John: I made a lot of tapes in that period and I may even have some in a box somewhere, though I doubt it. My father was working for Sony/Superscope (the US distributors for Sony tape recorders during this period, so I had a fairly decent reel to reel deck to experiment with.
[ Before I get emails berating me, yes I DID ask John to find out for sure whether or not he might possibly have a box of hidden SWU gems on tape hidden away in his attic or on a shelf at the back of the garage and got back this sad coda": "Sorry to report that I have located no Reel2Reel tapes of SWU from the olden days." [Oh well, it was a long shot... ]
Q: After the support slot at the Anderson, there was a plan for the SWU to back-up Jackson Browne who was back in the NE. In an article, Meltzer said: "Couple weeks after the Anderson they were supposed to back up Jackson Browne at the same place but it never happened because Tim Buckley's manager (he was on the bill too with Steve Noonan opening first) cancelled out cause he figured it for a real turkey. To this day Jackson will not talk to Pearlman on account of this fxxk-up."
What do you recall of this event - and what really happened?
John: My idea was to have the band play Jackson's songs, but Albert didn't like them and wanted to rewrite the music. That didn't sit too well with Jackson so my plan fell flat.
Q: Now, I'm trying to work out exactly when Les Braunstein first entered the equation - he attended the 2nd Feb Anderson gig but had been around at rehearsals and generally hanging out for a little while before that, so my best guess would be late 67 or Jan 68 for that, but he's said in the past that, as he came onto the scene, you had stopped performing...?
John: Les was dragged in by my ex-girlfriend who thought he was another Jackson Browne. Les was a very nice person, but not cut out of the same raw material as most of the rest of us.
Q: That would be Joan Shapiro, I presume?
John: Yes - that was Joan. But you've missed another interesting element in the SWU story: Jeff Kagel...
Q: Tell me more.
John: As far as I recall this was pre-Les - a guy called Jeff Kagel auditioned and rehearsed with the band - I couldn't say that Jeff was ever in the Soft White Underbelly because it wasn't really more than a few freaks trying to be something - but I thought it was a really good match because he had a strong and convincing blues mojo. I think Albert nixed the marriage.
Also - there was another singer wanna-be. Neil Louison, a friend of Pearlmans. Nice guy, competent singer but wrong for the band.
Q: A word about Joan Shapiro - I know she later went out with Sandy Pearlman also - did that cause any problems between you two? Everything I've read in the past though seems to indicate friendly relations between yourself and Sandy - I seem to recall him giving you credit for indirectly getting him hooked up with Paul Williams (Crawdaddy) because you recommended him to look up a friend of yours at Brandeis who knew Williams... something like that, anyway...
John: I never really knew Williams. Met him a couple of times at Crawdaddy, but Meltzer never had a kind work for him. I'm not sure about Sandy.
But no, there was never any rancor between any of us. No problems with Sandy. He was always very considerate to me. There were no allegiance issues as far as I could tell. It was all very sunny.
I was the visionary, the guru, but never too uptight to pick up the trash when that needed to get done. I had a vision of a powerful musical and philosophical force coming through the combined elements of our band, the Pearlman/Meltzer brain trust, the Crawdaddy connection and everyone seemed to share in that vision.
I did get very crazy because I could see no end to this messianic vision and it scared the crap out of me. I could see how easily our musical paradise could turn into something awful (think Jamestown Guyana.)
That's why I retired from activity in the band and I turned things over to Pearlman who according to Meltzer screwed everyone. There was no wresting it away. I was happy he was willing to go from philosophy student to musical entrepreneur/songwriter.
I pursued a higher calling to lead with wisdom and the most obvious path before me at the time was through yoga. Rock was a medium that only marginally interested me artistically so while I enjoyed the experimental, spontaneous process of playing, I was more interested in using art as a lever to achieve peace - end the Vietnam War, Nuclear Disarmament, etc.
Q: Once you were no longer performing with the SWU, you were still living in the St James house where they would rehearse etc - did you still carry on doing posters for them, going to gigs etc
John: I still lived there. I did posters for anyone who asked. For me these were the "Strange Days" (Doors reference)...
Q: How long were you all at the Sapienza house for?
John: We were there until the beginning of summer '68. Sapienza was very shocked and upset by the end because Jeff Richards (who'd moved in) had painted Sapienza's mother's room BLACK (bad omen).
Q: Once the lease ran out - in Summer 68, did you then graduate and go back to LA? Meltzer - charmingly - once said this in an article: "By summer Wiesenthal had acided himself west"... so it's always been my impression that you just went back "home" that summer...
John: I just took a break.
Q: Looking back, what are your thoughts about SWU?
John: I believe that it is a truly important part of the music history of its time that has gotten short shrift due to the amateur management that has plagued the group. I'm in part responsible for that in turning it over to Pearlman. The guy is very smart, but let's face it, he had trouble playing the harmonica.