This following is an interview John Wiesenthal did some years back for a newsletter called Stormy Weather that was put out by Lenny Goldberg, proprietor of a great little used record store in Florence Oregon...
(John Wiesenthal passed through Florence and decided to settle down in nearby Eugene. He's a classical guitarist/composer and turned out to have played with the early Cult, so I got him to tell me a little about those days.)
It all started back in 1965. I was taking an art history class with Meltzer and after class one day - it was medieval art - Meltzer was talking to me about this paper he was writing for the class which was gonna be about Superman comics and he was just laying all this stuff on my head that I didn't understand and that sort of became characteristic of our relationship. He was just heaping tons of concepts on me that I didn't really grasp and I was too bewildered to react in any other way, but he was a nice guy.
So we started talking and gradually started hanging out together. Meltzer was one of the few people I knew that really studied and he was getting incredible grades. Pearlman was making his bid for student body president at that time; so the next year, he became student body president, the hippies took over, dope became really "in" on campus and the next year Meltzer got a scholarship to Yale, Pearlman got a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Brandeis and I was really impressed because I really didn't have my shit together at all.
Anyway, that summer Meltzer and I got an apartment together in the city and I'd been studying classical guitar that year with Rodrigo Riera. Then Riera split to Europe and I started living with this girl named Paula and my practising started getting on her nerves and she started getting more kind of bitchy and I didn't have a job.
Meltzer was really into rock'n'roll. He gave me a Byrds record for my birthday and I started listening to Byrds songs and stared tuning in more to what was happening in the Village, the Lovin' Spoonful and all those people on the New York scene. That was in the summer of '66.
So the following year I went back and I moved into this big house that later became known as the Bennetts Road House. And I met this guy named Andy Winters who was having a hard time getting out of high school. He moved into the house.
Dave Roter and I had been great friends in the dorm; he's a great song writer, and we used to probe the darker aspects of the human soul together. He wrote songs about murder, rape, things like that. And we were living in that house, and there were a few other crazy people, Danny Engelhart and this guy named Tom Stone who was an IWW, a guy running around still smoking a pipe in 1965 and getting outraged about the injustices to the workers and he tried to get everybody to go along with him.
Well, that's when the idea first came for a band. 'Cause that year Pearlman and Meltzer were going to school and they started writing for Crawdaddy. And Paul Williams was sort of fading out and Pearlman was taking over more there. I wanted to put a band together to do the songs of Jackson Browne. I thought Jackson's songs would be a good starting place.
I met Jackson in high school. His sister and I and Steve Noonan were in a speech class together and I used to go surfing with Jackson and used to take my guitar along; so I'd show him how to play stuff on the guitar and we got tobe real good friends. And I used to spend a lot of time over at their house. His dad is a real good piano player, playing dixieland.
So Jackson and I started singing a lot of songs together. I moved to LA and started going to LA City College. He used to come in from Fullerton and we'd go down to the Ash Grove and we'd be learning new songs. Dylan was just getting popular then in '63. Kennedy was assassinated. I wrote my Lee Harvey Oswald song to the tune of "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."
So Jackson and I started writing songs, then I split to New York. I decided to go to school there. I was really worried about the bomb, the war; I was really into fear. Jackson and I exchanged some tapes and I was really impressed by the way he was learning so much guitar.
Back to the Bennett Road House. So we started playing together, Andy Winters and I, and there was this girl we called Suzie Creamcheese, Sue Gerchick. She wanted to be like Maria Muldaur. She was really weird. I really got to hating her finally, told her not to come around.
But anyway, Jackson came out to New York and this was 1966-67. I got one of the dorms to sponsor a concert. Tim Buckley was there. Tim was just incredible. I've never heard anybody sing like that except Phoebe Snow. He was doing that kind of thing - really throwing his voice into another space. He was on acid at that time. So Jackson stayed in New York and started playing with Nico at the Dom.
That was an interesting scene. Warhol was managing the Dom and showing this film called "Vinyl" which was Gerard Melanger making out with some girls leather boot. So that was where I was beginning to pick up on degeneracy, started to see what you could call decadence. I still don't know what it's all about.
By 1967 I was working for a film designer in Westport, Randy Enos, who does a strip called "Chicken Guts" for the Lampoon. We were doing animation stuff, it was really neat.
One of the studios we used to do freelance work with was a place called Steeg Studios and they had done a soundtrack for a film for a cosmetics firm and one of the office boys had brought in his band to do it and that was Allen Lanier.
He and I started talking and I told him about Meltzer and Pearlman. I used to think we were gonna take over the world, which Pearlman may still do. I see him as sort of the Henry Kissinger of rock & roll. He's a really brilliant guy.
So I brought Allen out to Long Island one weekend. A friend of Andy's from high school was really a hot guitar player, phenomenal guitarist - Donald Roeser and his friend Albert Bouchard. Albert was drumming.
I didn't spend too much time out there because I was really in to the film thing at Westport. They started playing parties at Miller Place. Pearlman stated calling the group the Soft White Underbelly.
My dad was getting involved in making a movie called "The Kremlin Letter" at that time. He'd bought the book and was turning it into a film. And I'd read the script and there was reference to this 'soft, white underbelly' that was referring to the decadent vulnerable aspects by which saboteurs can undermine a society and how these CIA guys work by pandering to them. So I liked that name - the Soft White Underbelly.
By the time fall rolled around I was ready to go back to school. Things seemed to be falling apart. Andy had to have his appendix out. I remember one night down at this theatre that Pearlman was remotely involved with, I think Moby Grape was playing there.
I said look, we're gonna have a band. We'll get a place and get it going. And I rented a house and everybody moved in and that was what I consider the beginning of the Soft White Underbelly. 'Cause we started living together and started playing music all the time.
Steve Noonan's album had come out and we got a concert lined up for him to do. So he came out and worked with the band, we played behind him. I was more interested in managing and sort of steering the whole thing. Allen was playing keyboards, Andy was playing bass, Albert drums, and Buck Dharma (Don Roeser) guitar.
The picture of the Soft White Underbelly in The Aesthetics of Rock is wrongly attributed to Jeff Richards. It was taken actually by me and a guy named Bob Altman.
Jeff Richards was a fellow art student and was singing with the band at the very beginning. We were just a bunch of freaks running around and after Steve Noonan split we were really at a loss 'cause nobody was into singing that much. So Jeff was singing. He's a house painter now.
We were really into the Doors a lot. We were sort of taking mescaline. And I think the best song on the first album is called "Then Came the Last Days of May", and that's a song about a guy named Bill Tate who was dealing mescaline that sort of gave us our first drug enlightenment.
So then I had this really strong feeling that the band was gonna be really great. On my first mescaline trip I was really disturbed by my inability to communicate with anybody, which I always am.
And it suddenly dawned on me, how wonderful it would be if everyone could understand each other which became this image of everybody having a unified consciousness and then I closed my eyes and saw a mushroom cloud and thought that's one way, I guess. And then I thought maybe the bomb was a blessing. I suddenly started getting into this power trip. I really felt we could make the band into anything we wanted.
Anyway, Allen got drafted and I was gonna play with the band and I felt it was impossible to let Allen stay in and be murdered in Vietnam so we worked really hard to get him out. He took some sleeping pills and he got out.
Meanwhile a friend of Donald's and Albert from a previous band, Jeff Latham, came in with his girlfriend so there were eleven of us in this, little, tiny house. We had this rope ladder that went up into the attic, and we used to go up there and get stoned.
The house was owned by this guy Mr Sapienza and his brother-in-law, Fred, and he was always threatening to murder us if we messed the house up or didn't pay the rent on time which we never were.
Basically I think the communal apathy set in. Nobody would have enough love in their heart to take out the garbage and do the dishes. Everybody felt that they were the only one that was doing it. So I was feeling that too.
I remember once dumping over all this garbage in the middle of the kitchen, throwing chairs around. So I started getting a reputation of something of a madman which was making it harder to function.
I was trying to get them to stop the war and I would talk to the president of the college and all these people. And I'd say we gotta get it together to stop this war and they'd say sure, anything we can do let us know. Bastards.
Les Braunstein who was a folk singer was going around doing high schools and my ex-girlfriend Joan thought he was another Jackson Browne, so he started singing with the band and I had these really bad feelings about him. I felt he was challenging the power I had with the band. So gradually I started to have less and less to do with the band and started getting involved with yoga.