Fresh Air ran my piece on Mott the Hoople on Monday, and the response has been tremendous -- more e-mail than for anything else I've done all year. That band really touched a nerve, and I guess it still does.
What got me thinking about doing the piece in the first place was seeing Ian Hunter and his band at SXSW this year. Alejandro Escovedo hosted one of the free outdoor shows SXSW always runs, and when Hunter became available, he insisted that he headline. Al, too, is a fan, you see, and it was very cool seeing him bound on stage to sing along with one or two of the songs.
I managed to wheedle a backstage pass, and it didn't take me long to find the tent where Ian and Trudi, who he's been married to for decades, were standing around, Ian casually sipping good champagne. It was great to hook up with them, and that was part of what got me thinking about the radio piece.
The other was the realization, sometime after the fact, that that concert took place almost 35 years to the day after I'd first heard Mott the Hoople,
the first Mott the Hoople album. How on earth do I know this? Easy.
It was March 10, 1970, and me and one very frightened beagle in a wooden box had just flown to San Francisco International Airport so that I could go to work at Rolling Stone. (If I'd been smarter, I'd have been scared, too.) We were met there by Gretchen Horton, who was secretary and surrogate mom to editor/publisher Jann Wenner, and in no time we were in her VW van, rolling up the highway to San Franciso, and her house, where dog and luggage would be stashed while I went to meet the boss. To add to the experience, she had KSAN, the legendary (at the time) underground FM station on, and it was playing loads of great stuff.
As I remember, she lived on Potrero Hill, and as we were almost at her house, a track came on the radio that silenced both of us. It was Dylan. Now, you have to remember that at this point, Bob Dylan had retreated into serious hermit mode. What little the fans had heard from him was vastly different than the stuff with which he'd made his reputation, and yet nobody had interviewed him or had the slightest idea what was going on in his life. This, of course, sparked rumors, and one of the things Rolling Stone was about was sifting the truth from the idle speculation. Not that they had a clue there, either.
So hearing this previously-unheard track on the radio was breaking news. A few minutes in, I suddenly realized I knew the song: it was "Crossroads," by the Sir Douglas Quintet, a Texas band that was currently resident in San Francisco. What was Dylan doing singing that?
Well, obviously, he wasn't: it was a track from that first Mott album, and that was what the DJ announced, but not before Gretchen had circled the block something like eight times waiting for the damn song to be over. "Obviously, you're going to have to review this one," she said as we finally parked in her driveway and started unloading the van. And I believe I did, too.
Not long after that, Mott came to town. Stephen and Julie were a couple who lived just up the hill from me in Sausalito, and she worked in Rolling Stone's accounting department and Stephen did some part-time work there and worked as a waiter at various restaurants, most notably a not-so-good Mexican one on Polk St. called El Gallo, the rest of the time. Julie insisted that bands on the road sometimes wanted a home-cooked meal and the chance to hang out, so somehow we got the message to Mott the Hoople, and I remember Ian, Mick Ralphs, Verdon Allen (Phally), and road manager Stan Tippins showing up at Stephen and Julie's house, and a good time being had by all. Stephen was a guitar player, as was I, sorta, and after dinner, the guitars came out. The songs we "jammed" on were two: "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and "Sloth," by Fairport Convention. I don't remember particularly pulling off any great solos, but at least I can say that I once or twice jammed with Mick Ralphs, future guitar god of Bad Company.
Yeah, once or twice: in the years to come, the band would let us know when they were hitting San Francisco, and we'd get together at Stephen and Julie's for a quiet evening of food, talk, and guitar strumming. "I like this," I remember Hunter saying. "This is the kind of thing we'd like to do more. I mean, we're not the kind of band that pulls a lot of birds on the road." ("Or at home," someone muttered. I blame Tippins.)
After the band's two triumphant Columbia albums, Hunter left the group, and I don't remember his coming back through San Francisco the rest of the time I lived there. I moved to Austin in 1979, and he did, I remember, come through there once or twice, although I don't remember seeing him: my concert-going was often dictated by the powers-that-be at the newspaper.
But the show I saw this March was great: full of energy -- he's got a fine young band, with some veterans of some of my favorites, including the Bongos -- and with some great new songs. Hunter's still doing it.
Although, according to his website, not at the moment. He's laid up with back problems, and had to cancel his July and August tour dates. Hope he enjoyed the show. It was the least I could do to pay him back for all the great times he's given me.