Event Review: The Clovis Report
Scene Three of the September 2005 Clovis Fest: Main Event
Charles Pike continues with his third of three installments of his off-the-wall journalistic take on the Clovis Festival music celebration that took place in Clovis, New Mexico during the second weekend of September 2005. Read the first two installments here: Event Review: The Clovis Report
and Scene Two of the September 2005 Clovis Festival
THE MAIN EVENT
We made a point of showing up early to the concert. The night before we had come at the last minute and were seated in the back; this time we were seated right up front.
Allison was informed that The Crickets would most likely play a Buddy Holly tune or two, and that she had to try to be patient; that the songs belonged to Joe B. and JI, who had also written them, and it might hurt their feelings if she screeches “STOP! YOUR KILLING ME!” in the middle of their set.
The laser in my CD player had burned a hole in Sonny’s recent CD, DIRE NEED. I dig his approach, because as a singer he never seems to be forcing the song — never showing off. He sings to the subject of the song, which informs the song and invests it with an integrity that more overproduced music lacks.
The subject of Sonny West’s songs seems to be fools for love. His characters sing their tales of intense infatuation, dismal betrayal, disenchantment with sophisticated city ways, swearing off love, and doomed to go right back out and do it all over again — the hard luck, happy go lucky, who just can’t seem to help themselves. Had Sonny stopped writing music 40 years ago, he still would have been known as one of the great composers of rock and roll, as his ageless anthems “Rave On” and “Oh Boy” testify. That he continues writing and recording to this day is a testimony to his vast creative energies.
There had been some problems back stage. The curtain was twenty minutes late. No one out front noticed the delay. The capacity crowd chatted and visited, all aglow in anticipation of the historic event that was about to unfold. And make no mistake about it: this is the twenty-first century and the chances of catching Sonny West, The Fireballs, and The Crickets on the same bill in the town, where they first recorded their magic, are few and far between. The Crickets hadn’t performed here since 1989. The audience had been waiting years for this and a few more minutes were nothing, given the alternative.
With his purple velvet smoking jacket, turned-up shirt collar, and the local band Fun Factory, Sonny West took the stage. Mr. Mo leaned over to me and said, “Ya get the feeling from this guy that you’ll never quite get the whole story.” Stepping up to the mic, obviously bowled over by the enormity of his reception, Sonny launched into a story about stage fright and the Native American hoop dancers, who have none. They are trained from a young age to leap through rings of fire, where the slightest miscalculation could make a proverbial ash of them. When he asked one of them why they experience no stage fright, the dancer replied, “We’re prepared.”
“I wasn’t going to mention that; in fact, the theme of my show tonight is ‘things I wasn’t going to mention.’ I wasn’t going to mention that this song was written in 1956; I won’t mention how long a time that is; and I won’t mention how long it has been since I have been onstage in Clovis.”
He ripped into “Rock-Ola Ruby” and the crowd ate it up. All three of my daughters leapt up and began dancing. I remembered the camera that Prince Dickie had handed me. “That’s right! I’m supposed to be covering this for The Lance Monthly!” Ignoring the fact that I was camera illiterate, I snapped a few shots. Sonny laid some more of his sardonic wit out, talked about some other things that he wasn’t going to mention, and then hit “Rave On.” I was having the best time in years. I took a few more shots. “You better save some for The Crickets!” Mr. Mo reminded me.
A role call was started. Sonny began naming a long list of fallen legends who had contributed to the Seventh Street scene, that were now deceased. The effect was palpable. He went right into the prescient “Where Am I?,” its first lines: “I saw my life flash before my eyes . . .”
John Pickering and Johnny Rogers came out and did some fabulous back up work, adding a lush “Picks” fill to the sound. Sonny then gave over the microphone for Gentleman John, who sang “Statue of a Fool.” Mr. Mo leaned in and said, “I see what this guy is all about. It only makes sense.”
When Pick had finished, Sonny’s music stand suddenly threw itself to the ground, scattering Sonny’s music and papers like a flock of pigeons off of the stage. The audience laughed in surprise. I leapt up and began gathering the papers as if it were my mission. Yes, I had become paperboy!
A beautiful young lady from the other side of the stage leapt up and started gathering also. Sonny walked to the edge of the stage and looked down. Earlier in the afternoon he had warned me at The Petty Studio, “I feel I should warn you that I might interrupt my set at any moment to have a fireside chat with you, I hope you don’t mind.” And then he disappeared.
Looking up at him now, I suddenly thought, “Oh shit! Here we go!” He reached his hand out for the papers. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move. A security guard rushed out and jerked the papers out of my hand. I looked at the top sheet as it was wrenched from my death grip.
“Almost Paradise” was the title on the page. The guard handed the papers to Sonny, who took a handful of them and tossed them back on the floor. “I won’t have time for these anymore, anyhow,” he muttered like W.C. Fields. The audience roared. He said, “I think this song is the most appropriate at this point.” He launched into “Haunted House,” and then he was gone. The audience rose to their feet cheering.
CASEY BLUE (age 6):
Buddy Holly is in my heart and soul, but Sonny West is my favorite singer.
This next set was a proud and glorious dream come true for me. Over the past few years, I had become an insane Fireballs’ fan, traversing New Mexico to catch any gig I could. I had seen them in Gallup, Rio Rancho, and Albuquerque. I had struck up a friendship with George, and my family is very fond of him.
Now Zoe had seen The Fireballs perform; George even came to her school once and played for the students. He is always going out and playing for the kids; in fact, just the day before the big music festival, he and the Legends had gone down and played at the local Clovis middle school.
My wife, however, has never seen George perform. She thinks of him as the guy who does theater projects with me, plays guitar in our living room, and sits next to us in the church pew. Walking into the auditorium that night, she had no idea how blown away she would be.
It was a fun set right off the bat, as there were new faces in the line up. There was a new drummer: Steve Cotton, a great addition. Paul Goad, an off-again-on-again Fireball, was most definitely on again. His keyboard was big and this addition allowed Ron Cardenas to slip from behind the keys to his first love, the guitar.
The Fireballs do a lot of choreography to their numbers; it was a hoot watching Ron, who is usually safe behind the keys, having to keep up with the co-founding old timers George and bass man Stan Lark. Stan did a rousing rendition of “Rock around the Clock”; he has a great voice. They did some of the big instros: “Bulldog,” “Torquay,” then Chuck came out.
Prince Dickie and I had witnessed The Fireballs bring the other cofounder, original standup vocalist Chuck Tharp, onstage at a casino outside of Albuquerque, when they had opened for Bill Haley’s Comets last March. Chuck was frail. His long white locks and beard made him look like the ghost of Buffalo Bill. He had the audience in tears with his song, “The Child in Me,” and made it through “Long, Long, Pony Tail”; he was tired and helped off the stage. Tonight he was fabulous.
Strong, youthful, full of energy, with close cropped hair, a clear eye, sharp mind, and golden voice, he dedicated “Long, Long Ponytail” to Buddy Hollyologist Bill Griggs and generally rocked the house. His cancer is in remission, and he is in great form.
George brought the rest of The Legends onstage one at a time and the audience loved it. George is a consummate showman, with alert eyes, a quick smile, and a mischievous sense of humor. He pointed out to The Legends that they would have to keep up their end on the movement, too. He gave them some special choreography of their own.
They finished up with a “mah-velous” rendition of “Sugar Shack,” and sent the audience out to intermission on a very high note. You could feel the buzz. Rebecca turned to me and said, “Wow! George is some kind of entertainer, isn’t he? I had no idea. The people are acting like he’s some kind of superstar!” “Well” I tell her, “He is George Tomsco of The Fireballs!”
My sense of time was becoming distorted. This was a moment I have waited for all my life. It was becoming surreal. People were settling in their seats, the lights were dimming. I squeezed Rebecca’s hand.
I never thought that I would have the chance to see The Crickets play in my life. I had given up on it long ago; a dream that was not to be. They played very rarely in America, if at all. I could feel my heart beating in my chest, in my ears. Even my eyes seemed to throb with each beat of my heart.
Some guy who claimed to be married to the beautiful Liz Eisenbraun got up on stage. There was some talk of checking programs for a signature. The lucky holder of the signed program, personally embossed with Liz Eisenbraun’s signature, would receive a Fender Stratocaster, autographed by The Crickets.
Mr. Mo was buying programs like a madman. “I own seven guitars already, Chuckie, but I must have that guitar!” Some local guy won. Mr. Mo began weeping bitterly and pulled the laminated Sonny Curtis autograph from his wallet; he has carried it with him for as long as I have known him. He stared at it, shaking his head and whispering, “It’s not fair” over and over. The lights went out.
The Crickets fascinate me, both as a music lover, and a writer. As a music lover the reasons are obvious. As a writer the obsessions relate to The Crickets place in history, their all but unacknowledged contribution to Rock and Roll, and thus, popular culture.
J.I. Allison is, perhaps, the most tragic figure in rock and roll. He had the misfortune to not be killed in the plane crash that took the life of his friend and writing partner, Buddy Holly in 1959, and America has never forgiven him. He and pal/bass player Joe B. were basically pariahs. They had done the unforgivable; they had tried to move on with their lives.
Relegated to the county fair circuit and England, where, ironically, they are recognized as the creative geniuses they are, their place in Europe is that of rock-and-roll royalty—the founding fathers. They seldom play America, their talents ignored, their creativity denied, forced to be a living museum to a dead childhood friend with whom they had a band for a couple of years a long time ago.
Ignore the fact that he is the seminal drummer of rock and roll, that Sonny Curtis was the first guitarist to record on the Strat, and that Joe B. is considered to be one of the top three bassists in the history of the genre, between them they have written some of the most memorable music in rock and roll.
Forty years of not being able to measure up to America’s obsession with tragic youth in a society that builds up only to tear down; a disposable culture that discards and punishes their idols.
I have tried to imagine the frustration they must feel, every new singer criticized for sounding like Buddy Holly, or for not sounding enough like Buddy Holly. Criticized for sounding too much like yourself, or not enough like your self, people unwilling to hear your new work, your creativity is denied. And no matter how well you play, how excited the crowd gets, how much you put into it, there will always be those that will say, “That was so good, if only Buddy were here it would have been perfect . . .”
That The Crickets are not acknowledged in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a shameless oversight and an affront to a group of still vital musicians that helped create America’s greatest idiom for personal expression in the twentieth century. Recently a Variety poll named The Beatles as the most important icon of the past century. The Beatles have always been very vocal with praise for The Crickets, reminding the world, “No Crickets, No Beatles.”
They opened the door for the sixties, and perhaps that is why they have come to be treated as doormen. Recently, however, the sands of time shift once again and there seems to be a big revival building.
The group’s last album, The Crickets And Their Buddys features tributes from a vast cast of talented rockers who were influenced by The Crickets. Among them: Bobby Vee, Tonio K, Eric Clapton, Rodney Crowell, Nancy Griffiths, and several others, in a powerful tour of the unholy trio’s treasure chest.
An album with England superstar Mike Berry is due for release. New DVD documentaries, and hopefully a big box set are on the horizon. They have been touring England and now they were coming back to Clovis, where they created the music that still holds so many of us captive.
In the darkness a voice rings out over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Crickets.” The curtains opened and the lights went up, and there they were, the three of them. The stage had become very crowded during the previous two acts, now the sparseness of the stage picture was potent. Three. That’s all you need to rock. They had been the band that became the format of the modern band, two guitars, a bass, and a drummer—the most copied format in the idiom. Now they were a big, bad, power trio, The Three Musketeers, the prime movers, the survivors.
Due to the show starting late, they were forced to do a rather quick paced set. JI hit the drum three times; Rebecca and I looked at Alison to see if she was going to break. She leapt to her feet and she and her sisters danced their hearts out at the foot of the stage. They did “Oh Boy” and “More Than I Can Say,” and it occurs to me that The Crickets were only Buddy’s band for a year and a half; they have been JI Allison’s band all his life.
JI sang “Summer Time Blues” and Joe B. did the low parts in a raucous version of the Eddie Cochrane classic. Sonny sang “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” and kept things lively between songs with a few barbs mainly at JI’s expense (Viagra jokes, etc.), and when it came time to play “Peggy Sue,” he said, “This next one is named after Jerry’s first ex-wife . . .”
They played “Rave On”, they played “I Fought The Law,” and Sonny’s guitar is as fresh as ever. He hits every note, hints at every nuance.
Once, during one of my first interviews with Fireballs guitarist George Tomsco, I asked him who his guitar heroes were. His reply, “Well, Sonny Curtis, and after that Tommy Allsup. Mostly Sonny Curtis. I used to go to bed at night and pray that I could one day play like him.” I asked if he didn’t think he ever reached that goal, and he said, “Oh my, no! No one plays like Sonny Curtis.”
JI’s drums were as crisp and clean as a freshly laundered Arrow shirt, and Joe B. was swinging slowly with a smile on his face, adding sparse fill, never forcing the issue. They looked like they were having one heck of a time up there with each other, and the audience was in complete awe.
They played six or seven songs, and then they were out of there. It was over in the blink of an eye—a mere mirage. I had waited all my life to see them; I wish they could have played all night, but that’s not very realistic. The crowd leapt to their feet and gave a standing ovation, showering the stage with love and gratitude.
I thought of what a wonderful venue for The Crickets and for Clovis. People want to come from all around the world to see The Crickets and The Seventh Street Legends play here. I hope The Crickets embrace The Clovis Music Festival, make it their own and give the fans a place where they know they can come once a year, year in and year out, to see the greatest living rock-and-roll band in the very place where they created the music that has meant so very much.
People slowly exited. They poured out into the lobby to mingle with each other and meet and greet the legends one last time before it was time to relinquish the fantasies and go home. Sonny West was in the lobby, along with The Fireballs, Homer Tankersly, David Bigham, John Pickering, Gary and Ramonna Tollet, The Crickets, and The Seventh Street Legends. I had met the other legends at other functions during the festival.
We were preparing to leave, when Randy Steele, the gentle giant, came over and said, “Hey Chas, why don’t you come over and have The Crickets sign your tile?” I had etched an image of Buddy and Waylon from a photo booth picture on a red Mexican terra cotta tile; I had carried it with me to ask them for an autograph, but wiped out. Randy ushered us over to the reception line. My mind began racing.
What would I say? I have to say something. I closed my eyes and began to pray, “Please God, please, do not let me make a complete horse’s ass of myself,” and when I opened my eyes, I was right in front of Joe B. He has this insanely happy smile, intense eyes; I hand him the tile and begin to stammer.
ME: Mis . . . Mister . . . Joe. . . . Joe B, would you sign, please sign this for me?
JOE B: Why sure. Who is it to?
ME: Chas Pike.
JOE B: Chas Pike? The guy from Bill Griggs’ Board? The whacko that bought Carl Bunch’s toe off eBay? The one who started the rumor that I like to carry a live chicken around in a bowling bag? You think you’re pretty funny, don’t you, Laughing Boy. (Still smiling, to The Crickets.) Hey, how many blows do you think this guy’s conk will take before it splits like a melon?
Both Sonny and JI take out their jack rolls, peel off a few twenties, and then toss them on the table.
JI throws his money down.
A security guard moves in and hurries me along.
SECURITY GUARD: Look, move along pal! One signature per customer! Come on! Let’s go! Nobody likes a wise guy!
Still smiling, Joe B. hands the tile to Sonny to sign. I step over to Sonny. A middle-aged woman with her teen-aged son steps up to the table. She hands Joe B. her program to sign. Joe B. is smiling at her.
JOE B.: Who is this to?
WOMAN: Bobbi Kopeckne.
JOE B.: From Carlsbad?
WOMAN: Yes, that’s right! I am a big fan.
JOE B.: We thought you were a KISS fan.
WOMAN: Well, everyone was listening to them.
JOE B.: If everyone were getting tattoos on their forehead would you do it too?
Her son pulled his cap lower over his eyes. Sonny signed my tile and handed it to JI. JI looked at it, looked at me, and then looked at Sonny. Sonny shrugged. I extended my magic marker, but he deferred, taking a sharpie from his pocket and taking the cap off. He was about to sign when JI said, “May I ask you a question, in the context of the hypothetical?”
ME: An abstract or concrete?
JI: Abstract, differentiation based upon the moral imperative.
ME: Either or, or absolutes?
JI: Either or.
JI: Excellent. (Sonny and Joe B. both take out their money and throw some bills on the table.) Okay, now an evil genius has mastered the powers of the universe. He has set in motion the doomsday machine and it is your job to stop the doomsday machine and save mankind, okay?
Joe B. and Sonny throw more money down.
JI: Now, this same criminal mastermind has kidnapped you, Sonny, and Joe B, and blasted the three of you into outer space in a tiny space capsule with only 72 hours worth of oxygen, okay?
They throw more money on the table.
JI: Okay, between the three of you, you crack the code. In order to save mankind from eminent destruction you must kiss either Sonny or Joe B full out on the mouth for seven seconds. Who do you choose? Remember, civilization rests in your hands!
JI: See the fun? The abstract is mine; the moral imperative is yours!
SONNY: Choose me! ME!
JOE B: ME! ME!
SECURITY GUARD: Are you still over here making trouble? Do I have to have you hauled in?
SECURITY GUARD: Let’s go!
JI signed the tile and gave it to me.
SECURITY GUARD: Okay you got your thingie signed, now step aside and let someone else have a turn.
I turned to go. The crowd was mobbing the table. Others were making their way to the parking lot and going home. I looked down at my tile, embossed with Waylon and Buddy’s image; I looked at the signatures of The Crickets and my mind swam. A remembrance of Prince Dickie floated by.
I forgot to ask them to sign something for Prince Dickie. I turned around and fought my way back through the crowd, knocking down one older lady with an armload full of albums, scattering her black vinyl treasures like Tidily Winks. I stepped up to the table.
JOE B: ME! ME!!
SONNY: NO! ME! CHOOSE ME!
ME: I forgot to get something signed for Dick Stewart.
The Security Guard was heading over.
SONNY: Prince Dickie? Hey I heard he had a heart attack. Is he okay? (He grabs something, signs it, and hands it to Joe B.) Sign this! It’s for Prince Dickie!
JOE B: Dickie Stewart?
Joe B signed it and handed it to JI, who signed it and handed it to me. He shook my hand.
ME: Thank you so much!
JI: You play any poker?
SONNY: Smart guy.
As we were walking across the black top, my wife said to me, “I used to get so tired of you playing your music over and over. But now I understand; I really do. You can play your music whenever you want to, AND we’re coming back here next year, and every year after.” It was one of the great moments in our eighteen years of marriage.
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 11
There was to be a gospel sing along at The Petty Studio later in the morning, put together by Richard Porter, who lent us some wonderful photos for this article. Rebecca really wanted to go; “I had no idea it would be so wonderful. Next year we will have to budget more time.”
We plugged in John Mueller’s CD, Romance and Redemption, and began the eight hour ride home. The end of a vision quest becomes another leg in the journey—the first steps toward our next destination. We do not know what the coming year has in store for us, but we do know where we will be next September.
A special thanks to Southwest Cheese, and RollerCoaster Records, the corporate sponsors for The Clovis Music Festival, The City of Clovis, Ernie Koss, Robyne Beaubien, Melilnda Adams, Ashley Szymanski, and especially Liz Eisenbraun.
For more information and to contact the author, click on the author’s name at the top of the page.