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Friday, October 12, 2012

The Battle of New Orleans - July 17, 1976

This is an older post from several years ago.  I'm bringing it back for a couple of reasons.  (1) I'm considering consolidating all my old blog posts into one location and, (2) because someone who had read it before requested it.  So here it is, warts and all!

Trying to remember all of the concerts that I have experienced made me think about some of the circumstances surrounding these events. I call them events, not in the same way that promoters refer to them as events but, in the sense that, in those lost days from the 60’s to some point in the 90’s, they were truly events, milestones in a teenager’s life. It was a chance to go see the artists that you’d idolized and listened to on recordings endlessly and only occasionally got to see on television.

You could read about them in magazines like Rolling Stone. Back then, Rolling Stone magazine was an important and relevant publication, worthy of the money you spent on it. It was an edgy magazine with great articles and writers, and the musicians were interesting trend-setters and experimenters. Rock and roll music was still in its adolescence and was not yet accepted into the mainstream and was frowned upon by most of society. Information on musicians used to be hard to come by, especially if you lived in the outlands. There were no 24 hour-a-day music channels on television and they weren’t the mainstream social entities that they are now. Today, Rolling Stone magazine is not worth putting in the bottom of a bird cage. It has been sold and sanitized and filled with talentless, plastic poseurs who put out pre-fabricated recordings of meaningless tripe.
Most of these concert events were wild road trips with caravans of friends in different vehicles, loaded with passengers and party supplies, roaring along the highway blasting music and pre-gaming for the show. I figured that there were some that would be worth writing about. Here is one.

I had been out partying with a couple of friends all night and, with the arrival of morning, the glaze of the night before became painfully apparent. We had been smoking and drinking for hours and the grimy crust of an all-nighter hung on us like a parasite. We had drunk beer and wine all night and smoked ourselves into a near catatonic state. The sun was coming up and we were faced with the decision to find somewhere to rest or to keep going. We were just sort of cruising around and winding down when an advertisement on the radio announced that The J. Geils Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top were playing at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans that night. Well, that was only about two hundred miles away, three hours driving time, give or take and, at the time, ZZ Top was the big dog. They were outselling The Rolling Stones and were traveling with the world's biggest sound system packed in nine semi trucks. The tickets were $12.50 each at the gate, remember this was 1976. My buddy, let's call him Rat because many years later that's what his nickname turned out to be, said, "I'll buy the tickets and pay for the gas if we can take your car." That sounded just about as reasonable as it could be, to a sixteen year old who'd never been to New Orleans, so I agreed.
We spent some time around town picking up a couple of other friends along the way, we’ll call them Willie and Randy. See how this is already starting to become an “event”? At the time I was driving a pretty ragged out '67 Chevy Malibu with worn out shocks and a really good stereo system (typical '70's style). The shocks were non-existent so anytime I had passengers in the back seat the tail pipe would drag when you hit a bump. In the 70’s you could get away with driving a car like that and even be very successful with the ladies. Then, not many kids our age were driving cars that were as good as or better than their parents, unlike now. After stocking up on more party supplies, we were off, I just didn't know how "off" we were going to be before it was all over with.
Being only sixteen, I felt like the only proper thing to do in this situation was to let my parents know where I was going. I also knew that, given the chance, they'd probably forbid it, so I was elated to spot my younger brother playing in the yard when I drove up. He was four at the time and I figured that he was more than capable of delivering the message so I leaned out the window and said, "Hey! Tell Mom and Dad that I'm going to New Orleans to see ZZ Top, I'll be back tomorrow," and then I left. I was feeling really responsible and good about myself, having done the right thing.
The first indication that we may be in for a less than pleasant experience was when, before we even cleared the city limits, we were pulled over by a cop. Rat was driving because I was still sort of blown out from the previous evening's debaucheries and besides, he knew The Way. I was hunkered down in the passenger seat trying to be invisible when the cop thrust his huge head into the car to look us over. I can remember squinting up at him through red, puffy eyes and seeing the little alligator style, roach clip that I had clamped on the visor rubbing all over the top of his cop hat. I just tried harder to be invisible by closing my eyes and squishing lower into my nest. He made some comment about us needing new tires and let us go on our way.
"Jesus!" I thought, "I can't believe that lunatic is just going to let us go, doesn't he realize that he'll be responsible for whatever happens to us from this point on! Oh, well, whatever happens will be on that crazy bastard's head."

The next time that I opened my eyes we were somewhere in the bowels of downtown Mobile, Alabama. I looked up with one eye and saw a One Way street sign slide past my window with the arrow pointing toward the rear of my car. I sat up and looked around. I was disoriented and needed desperately to get my bearings. I was also a little concerned about the sign which seemed to be at odds with the direction we were taking. I considered the possibility that it could be an omen.

"Hey. Rat. That sign said One Way"
"I'm only going one way" was his reply.

That sounded like a reasonable answer.

We were in Mobile to stop by someone's (I forget whose) sister's house. Why? I don't know. I guess to raid the refrigerator and see if there was anything we could steal because that’s probably what we did. After about an hour we were back on the road, finally, some interstate travel.
The closer we got to the venue, the more carloads of "heads" and young people we saw. In one of these cars were some cute, girls who were about our age. They pulled beside us and held up a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey. We didn't have whiskey but we did have weed, so we held up a joint. They motioned for us to pull to the side of the highway and we sat beside I-10 sharing our weed and their whiskey. They were on their way to the same concert so we had plenty to talk about. After this short interlude we resumed our noisy, sodden journey.
When we reached the Tulane area of New Orleans it became apparent that there had been no provisions made for parking this many vehicles. We got as close as we could and just pulled up onto the median or 'neutral ground', if you’re using the local patois, in the middle of Tulane Avenue. We weren't the only ones doing that, Tulane Avenue had turned into one long parking lot with crowds of concert goers walking along the sidewalks carrying bottles, backpacks and ice chests. This was the party! We were there! We got out and locked the wreck up and fell into the procession. We were walking behind a guy who was carrying two plastic gallon milk jugs with some murky looking liquid sloshing around in them. Assuming it was wine we asked for some and in the post hippie spirit of the mid-seventies he was happy to oblige. After taking a few good pulls on the neck of the jug, I think it was Randy who said,

"Man, that's some shitty tasting wine!"
"That's not wine, it's mushrooms." Psilocybin, woops.

That didn't faze us, being the veterans that we were. It just set the tone for the rest of the day, weirdness.

As we approached the gates where the crowd was being bottle-necked into the arena it got tighter and tighter. Randy, who was a couple of years younger than us and much smaller, said that his feet weren't even touching the ground. He was just mashed up in the crowd and being swept along. I reached over the shoulders of several people and got a hand on him to try and keep him from being separated from us. We finally got inside and found some seats in the stands to call headquarters. Anyone who was ever at an outdoor concert like this in the seventies knows that it is a non-stop hedonistic orgy of excesses and this one was no different. The gates opened at three and J. Geils wouldn't start until around seven. Loud music was blasting from house-sized speakers and everywhere there was fun. F-U-N fun. More fun than is allowed, more fun than is legal, more fun than we should be having. So much fun that it could scare the shit out of you. Smoking, drinking, tripping, fighting, puking, necking, running, shouting and dancing. Fun fun fun. It was as if someone had opened the back door to a lunatic asylum and let them all out into a fenced yard to romp in the evening air. Small town Alabama was never like this, even on Saturday night. It was a lot to take in.

The J. Geils Band got started a little before it got completely dark and put on rollicking good show. Peter Wolf was dancing and scat-singing like an amped-up version of King Louie from the Jungle Book, yes, like an orangutan ripped to the tits on crank. I never knew that the human body could move that way.
Soon, after they finished their set and left the stage trouble started brewing. We saw a commotion and looked into the crowd on the ground in front of where we were sitting and saw a blue knot sliding through it. It looked like a big blue porcupine because on top of the blue mass were all these spines sticking up bristling and moving. Then we realized that the spines were night sticks being wielded by the New Orleans City Police who were moving through the crowd stomping the shit out of everything too slow or too stupid to move. What got all this started we never knew, but as soon as the crowd in the upper seats noticed what was going on it turned into a bottle throwing competition. Bottles floated out of the night sky from every direction aimed at the blue mass of law enforcement storm troopers down there. After the aerial assault had gone on for a while and the cops had slowed their beatings down in favor of covering up their heads, someone came on stage and made a statement over the P.A. system.
"Hey, everybody, calm down! Calm down! We're all out here trying to have a good time, now, don't ruin it, just calm down…and will the New Orleans City Police please leave the stadium!"
Holy shit! Really? They can say that?  And get away with it? It was an epiphany! If you have a big enough crowd on your side and a microphone plugged into a big enough P. A. system, you can get away with saying all kinds of stuff.

At the sound of this last part of the announcement the crowd erupted in a deafening roar of approval. This went on the entire time that the police worked their way back out of the crowd like a bunch of whipped dogs. I still don't know what sparked that whole incident off and I don't know how asking the New Orleans Police to leave the stadium really worked, but it did. Many years later I heard that one of the cops had been paralyzed by someone dropping an ice chest on his head from the top of the stands. I don't know if this is true or not, I hope not, that’s somewhat severe. I also heard that this incident had a lot to do with the closing of Tulane Stadium and that they didn’t have any more concerts there after this one, I don't know if that's true either, but it did close. What I do know is that they had one there, one time, and we were there.

A little later another announcement was made stating that due to some airplane trouble (ironic, isn’t it?) that Lynyrd Skynyrd would not be able to make the show that night. It was a terrible disappointment because I never got another chance to see them before their plane crashed in a swamp in Mississippi a year later. But to make up for it ZZ Top came on and put on a hell of a show.

Three spotlights hit the stage illuminating a cactus with a vulture (I think it was a vulture) perched on it to one side of the stage, a bison on the other side of the stage, a guy holding up what we assumed to be a rattlesnake in the center of the stage and long horn steers all on a huge Texas shaped plywood stage.  Then, they introduced ZZ Top. If there had been a roof on the place it would have been blown off. This was their 1976 world tour, back when they were still just a little old band from Texas and they were blues fueled, raucous and kicked ass. They started out just like the live side of their album (some of you will recognize the term “album side”) Fandango with "Thunderbird" and rocked the rest of the night.

ZZ Top wound up returning to the stage for seven encores that night for over 50,000 fans. At the end of the last encore a curtain was lowered with "Adios Amigos" emblazoned across it to the strains of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" playing over the P.A. system to usher us all peacefully out into the New Orleans night.

By then we were completely wrung out and exhausted. We made our way out of the stadium and back to the car in the middle of the median where we had to sit and wait for traffic to clear before we could move. It was a pretty long wait if memory serves. On the three hour drive back Rat decides that he's had enough and wants to pull over to sleep, after a brief argument I took the wheel and brought us back home without incident.

It was a wild ride on a wild highway and one of those experiences that helps us to become who eventually turn out to be. That is life, that’s what life is. It is a series of experiences each of which changes you in some way to make you the person that you are right now. Ten minutes from now you may have had an experience that turned into a different person, that’s who you’ll be then. There are an awful lot of instances of questionable behavior and wrong turns stowed away back there in my youth, some of it dangerous and irresponsible. Everyone likes to think about going back to their youth and knowing then what I know now, but you know, if a person were to go back and fix all of their mistakes they would surely be an entirely different person. In some cases that may be an improvement but in most I’d say, probably not.

They began demolition on Tulane Stadium in November 1979, but in my mind it will always be there on July 17, 1976 the place where, at sixteen, I was part of the biggest party in New Orleans for one night. I won't ever forget my first trip to New Orleans to that concert thirty-one years ago. My mother won't let me.

The names have been changed to protect the lawless, criminal swine who took part in this shameful episode but the dates, places and events are all true.
Keith Browning - 2007
I still have this but I have no idea where my keys are

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