Gary James' Interview With Rock Writer
In the 1960s, Ellen Sander was reporting on all the big Rock events of the day. She was at Woodstock. She was at the Monterey Pop Festival. She was at John and Yoko's Bed-In and she was in the studio interviewing Mick Jagger when The Rolling Stones were working on "Beggar's Banquet". Her stories can be found in a revised edition of her book; Trips: Rock Life In The Sixties. Ellen Sander spoke with us about that time in her life.
Q - Ellen, would you say the musicians of the late 1960s were more interesting than the musicians that followed?
A - Well, I didn't really follow any other musicians, but I think that they are. I think they had more impact than almost any other time identified group of musicians in the history of American Popular music.
Q - Did you ever meet Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix?
A - I met all of them. I barely met Janis Joplin. I didn't meet her in terms of someone introduced us, but we were in the same room a few times, particularly at one of Bill Graham's Thanksgiving (Day) parties at the Fillmore East. So, I do remember seeing her. The thing is, I feel like I know a lot more about Janis because her road manager, Myra Friedman was a very good friend of mine and this is way, way after Janis died. Myra wrote a book about Janis Joplin, probably the most informed one because she spent an extended amount of time with her. Myra was the publicist for Albert Grossman's company, but she was the one that would go on tour with Janis. I feel like I kind of know Janis a little bit through Myra in that way. I certainly met Jim Morrison a number of times in Los Angeles and in New York. Jimi Hendrix I met at a number of parties, including the opening night party of Electric Ladyland. I met him one time in Smiley's Deli in New York City in Chelsea. I was writing late at night and I decided I needed some ice cream and I went down to Smiley's. There were a lot of Smiley's in Mew York. They were a chain deli. I'm at the ice cream counter and I'm reaching for the rum raisin and all of a sudden this long arm goes past me with a paisley sleeve and picks up the rum raisin that I was going for. So, I stand up and turn around and who but Jimi Hendrix! (laughs) He's standing there and we both kind of giggled. It was the last carton of rum raisin in the freezer case and he let me have it.
Q - Did he know you? Did he remember you?
A - I don't really know. So, let's talk about this word know. I didn't know anybody. I mean, I didn't live with them. I didn't hang out with them. My relationship with any of these musicians that I worked with was strictly transactional. I was there to do a job and they were there to get whatever benefit out of coverage. So, in terms of knowing anybody, that's for like friends and lovers and family, but I had a professional relationship with these musicians.
Q - Jimi Hendrix then did not remember you from a past meeting?
A - I couldn't tell because it was all wordless. We didn't speak. We laughed.
Q - Alright. What did you think of Jim Morrison? What was your impression of Jim Morrison?
A - Jim was a very shy person. I kind of felt a certain understanding about him 'cause he was primarily a writer. I think that's how he liked to think of himself. He was just a very shy kind of person, but he was also an actor and a performer. He had a very well developed stage presence. As with many performers, his private life was very different. He was also a downstairs neighbor of one of my good friends, so I saw him on occasion there where he lived. So, I feel like he was shy and since the success of The Doors happened so quickly and so extremely, it was kind of hard for him to adjust. So, he spent a lot of time feeling oddly out of place and he would just put on his persona to deal with it.
Q - Did you meet any of The Beatles?
A - I met Ringo at a party once.
Q - But never John Lennon?
A - I interviewed John Lennon, but he was no longer with The Beatles. When John Lennon was in Canada, trying to get a visa to get into the Unites States and holding these bed-ins, I went to one of those and interviewed him. I baby sat for Kyoko, Yoko's daughter by Tony Cox, while they went to the embassy to try and get a visa. I did spend some time with John Lennon, yes, but he was out of The Beatles at the time.
Q - You were at Woodstock and saw Jimi Hendrix perform.
A - Oh, yes.
Q - How many people would you say were watching when Hendrix performed? I've heard the number was as little as 10,000. I've heard it was more than that.
A - It's hard for me to do a crowd count. It was at least 10,000. Some people say it was 15,000, but it certainly was a lot less than it was eight hours before that. I would go with 10,000.
Q - And isn't it strange because Jimi Hendrix was certainly the more famous of the performers.
A - What happened was, night had turned into morning and people were leaving because they had been there all night. It was exhausting. It was Monday morning and they were leaving. That's why the audience was small. He was the last act playing.
Q - You had a five star, backstage pass at Woodstock. I've never heard of that before. I believe someone told me it was Peter Grant (manager of Led Zeppelin) who came up with the idea of having a backstage pass.
A - I don't know if Peter Grant came up with the idea of having a backstage pass or not, and I have actually never heard that. The Woodstock passes, everybody got the same pass, but the number of stars that were stamped on your pass determined the amount of access you had.
Q - And you had total access?
A - I did. I had an E ticket. (laughs)
Q - What accounts for this continued fascination with the Woodstock Festival? I brought up the fact that so many of the performers died a year after Woodstock to a photographer who was there and he just laughed. He said, "You gotta be kidding!" But, that does weigh into it, doesn't it?
A - That's true. But the reason it was iconic is because of the audience, because of the camaraderie and resilience of the audience and the size of the audience and the fact that through rain storms and two hour halts in the performances and all kinds of mess-ups and difficulties, this audience pulled through. They pulled each other through. They shared things. It was a remarkable experience in that way for the performers to see such an enormous crowd. It was great. So, it was iconic in every way and during the time it was happening you could feel it. You could feel how special and unprecedented it was.
Q - Did you ever go on the road with any of the performers you interviewed?
A - The only time I ever went on the road was with Led Zeppelin, and that was an assignment from Life magazine.
Q - And how many days were you on the road with them?
A - I think it was a few days shy of two weeks.
Q - That was a U.S. tour?
A - It was a U.S. tour.
Q - What year would that have been?
A - It was in 1969 I think. I'd have to actually check my own book, but I think it was 1969.
Q - I read that interview you gave Rolling Stone where you described an encounter backstage where John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin) physically came after you. Had Zeppelin's manager, Peter Grant, not interceded, what do you think would have happened to you?
A - Obviously I am not going to speculate on what might have happened because what's the point? It does not seem productive to speculate on that. The Rolling Stone interview with me was also about my book, Trips, which has recently been re-released with additional material and was probably the most I've ever spoken about that. The reason they did not want to mention one of the assailants (in addition to John Bonham) was because they anticipated there might be some legal jeopardy.
Q - I recall hearing that John Bonham had some kind of physical confrontation with Bill Graham's security people at a concert.
A - Led Zeppelin had a reputation for rather riotous encounters while they were on the road, sometimes involving the humiliation of women.
Q - I never heard that before. That's too bad. You were at the Monterey Pop Festival and you saw The Who smash their equipment.
A - Yea. (laughs)
Q - When you saw that, did you say to yourself, what has this got to do with music? There were probably plenty of people at the time who would have loved to have had a guitar, an amp or a drum set and couldn't afford it.
A - That's a very good point, Gary. That's actually not what went through my mind. Although it was typical of them to break up their instruments and break up the stage at the end of their sets, I was probably the only person there who did not get the memo, who did not know that it was something they did in all their shows. So, when that bust up started happening, I thought they were freaking out. I couldn't quite get my mind around what was happening. I got terrified. There was a pit where the photographers were allowed to be in and I was there in the pit because my pass allowed me in there. I just kind of went to the end, near the stage, where I felt there would be the least possibility of getting hurt. I thought they were going bananas. Then finally somebody explained it to me. (laughs)
Q - And then after The Who, Hendrix comes out and sets his guitar on fire.
A - I know. I that that was so dramatic.
Q - It was a double whammy.
A - I was a double whammy. With that it was such a beautiful, ritualistic thing. It seemed perfectly rehearsed and it just seemed to go perfectly with his set, which was so incandescent. He was a remarkable performer and musician.
Q - Yes, he was. There's never been anyone like Jimi Hendrix.
A - You have said it.
Q - Of course there's never been another Janis Joplin and there's never been another Jim Morrison.
A - It's true. Jim was like a crooner. Nobody sang like Jim Morrison. He really was like a crooner. He sang things like they were show tunes. He was a great performer in a totally different way and he also directly engaged the audience. He'd walk to the end of the stage and point and walk down and just really whip people up. He loved doing that.
Q - You spent some time in the studio with The Stones.
A - Yes.
Q - Were they mixing an album then or did they let you watch as they recorded?
A - They were mixing. They were mixing "Monkey Man" when I got there and playing back "Honky Tonk Women". So, they were mixing. When I started talking to Mick, because I was there to interview him and do a story, he went away from the mixing board. Well, we were actually sitting at the console, talking, and we kind of walked toward more of the back of the room so that the engineer could get to more of the faders. Keith was in there, over-dubbing some guitar, but I wasn't paying attention to that. My story was pretty much centered around Mick.
Q - I always thought Brian Jones was the more interesting of The Stones, but of course by the time you were in the studio with Mick, Brian Jones was long gone.
A - He was long gone, yeah. You could probably tell me more about Brian Jones than I could tell you. I didn't pay a lot of attention to his role.
Q - Ellen, he was only the guy who formed The Rolling Stones, gave the band their name, was the most musical, the best dressed, and had a unique look. And today he's all but forgotten.
A - Do you think he's really been forgotten?
Q - I do.
A - Obviously The Stones are still working, though most of what goes on about them is about the existing band. It's pretty amazing that they're still working. They're still touring. They're still recording. They're still writing.
Q - I suppose. To have seen the original Rolling Stones, without all the props and special effects, would have been more exciting. Some people would argue about that.
A - I guess people are more attached to what they first encounter. I know that the music you grow up with is the music that stays very important to you, even though your tastes may change over time.
Q - As you look back at all the Rock musicians you've interviewed, do they seem as interesting to you as they were back then?
A - I think they're even more interesting now because time has shown how innovative and original and revolutionary they were. Music had a message and the message felt very relevant to the fans. Today I think, for whatever, better or worse, music doesn't really have a message. Maybe today's contemporary musicians don't think that's important or their audience doesn't, but pretty much White Rock 'n' Roll does not really resonate the way it used to.
Q - Maybe the fifth generation rockers just aren't as creative.
A - I always thought it would just get better and better. I don't feel what I hear today is Rock 'n' Roll.
Q - Maybe there's too many distractions with today's musicians.
A - I think there's too much distraction with all of the media because the distribution is so diffused through the internet, through satellite radio, through internet radio, through regular radio. It's almost as if recordings have much less relevance than they used to when the world revolved around recordings when I was coming up.
Official Website: www.EllenSander.com
© Gary James. All rights reserved.