August 15 and August 16. Three and four days ago. Take the same two dates and span them over fifty-three years.
They are the days the music not only started, but subsequently, the days the music stopped.
However for the New York Mets, perennial losers, those calendar days represent perfection.
August 15, 1965. It was a sweltering 89 degrees at New York’s then already outdated LaGuardia Airport next door to Shea Stadium, home of the misfits of Major League Baseball. The stadium’s tenants, the Mets, were in Houston for a weekend tangle with their 1962 expansion counterparts the Astros, who changed their name that season from the very politically incorrect Colt 45’s. Of course that was before we knew something could be politically incorrect because we didn’t have CNN to tell us. Both teams were bad. Really bad. The Mets, on their way to a 112-loss season and only forty-seven games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers, beat Houston 3-0 that afternoon.
Back at Shea, just as Mets lefty Al Jackson was putting the final touches on a rare complete game win down in Houston, the stadium was in a frenzied mode. Jackson won eight and lost twenty that season. He was one of the better pitchers on Casey Stengel’s roster, too. In Queens, workman were harried; two thousand security personnel went through their final preps and tradesman tried to determine if the creaky wood planks that had been assembled as a stage between second base and the pitching mound would hold the four blokes from Liverpool later that evening.
That night, fifty-three years ago, was the birth of stadium rock as we know it today. The Beatles, who eighteen months earlier came to America on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’ were playing an open air concert this night for the very first time with over 56,000 crazed ticket holders jammed into the round concrete structure that shared the same Flushing Meadows turf with the concurrent New York World’s Fair. Parking, as you can imagine, was a dream.
The show was opened by Cannibal & The Headhunters and the Young Rascals. Cousin Brucie emceed the night though Ed Sullivan actually introduced the Beatles. A top ticket set you back $5.75 and the Beatles pocketed $160,000 of the $304,000 gate for fifty minutes of work.
The girls screamed, the guys rocked with their awkward teenage rock moves and security couldn’t hear a thing but prayed that was the worst it would get. As a result, the word ‘teenybopper’ became part of next year’s World Book.
Meanwhile the very same night in Los Angeles, three thousand miles away, the neighborhood of Watts burned.
Five years earlier, Aretha Franklin signed her first recording contract with Columbia Records. Four years later to that day, August 15, 1969, New York’s open air music scene moved a hundred miles north of Queens to vacant farmland in a ‘burg called Bethel. Richie Havens opened the hippie fest of peace, love, drugs and sex with a three hour set. Four days later the electric Jimi Hendrix closed it. It was known forever more as Woodstock.
The weather was deplorable. In fact, that’s probably being kind. Heavy rains caused flooding, traffic was at a standstill, hygiene was non-existent, yet somehow 400,000 people made it to Max Yasgur’s farm. The weather was so bad that the Mets-Padres game was rained out that night down the road at Shea, but the Mets, in the midst of their miracle season, came back the next night, August 16, behind Tom Seaver and Jim McAndrew to sweep San Diego in a doubleheader.
Though close by for both, I attended neither. The 1965 Beatles concert was toward the end of my rookie summer as a camper in upstate New York at Camp Impala in a small Catskills town called Woodbourne. Impala hosted about a hundred Jewish kids for two months so our parents could have a break. It was a tight-nit family feeling that impacted all our lives and in many ways still does to this day. Joe Allen, who I met that summer and who is still a cherished friend today, years later called it “the camp that OSHA forgot.” The line gets funnier with time because it’s so true.
In 1969 I was a seventeen-year-old know it all and group counselor at Impala. We were only twenty miles away from Woodstock. We heard something was going on but couldn’t have appreciated the mass scope of what was planned. My assistant counselor, the late Allen Nadler, disappeared for four days. I stayed behind trying to herd a dozen eleven and twelve year olds while wondering why Terri, Karen and Heidi didn’t share the same interest I had in them.
Viet Nam continued to rage in the spring of ‘69; by summer, we landed a man on the moon and gathered almost a half million people in a New York State pasture; in autumn, the Mets did the sports improbable by winning the World Series, and by the end of the year Aretha was solidly entrenched as a headliner.
Eight years later, on August 16, 1977, Elvis left the building for the final time at the love-me-tender age of forty-two. His legend was born in the mid-1950s which was six or eight years before most of the later-year Boomers could appreciate him and the music revolution he championed. But everything we enjoyed on WMCA or WABC in the 60s was a result of Elvis legacy. On the same day of his fateful heart attack the Mets, whose fortunes had reversed and were on pace once again for a one-hundred loss season, were in St. Louis beating the Cardinals 5-1 behind a complete game from Pat Zachary. No doubt they tipped their caps to Babe Ruth who died on August 16, 1948. Meanwhile Aretha was in the clubhouse with eight Grammy Awards already on her shelf.
Those two days in August stayed quiet for over forty years until a few days ago. Thursday, August 16 was a day to forget in the music industry.
Aretha, bravely fighting pancreatic cancer, was silenced on this earth. She leaves us with eighteen Grammy’s, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first female artist to be inducted in the Rock Hall of Fame and number one on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the one hundred greatest singers of all-time. And of course the Blues Brothers. We all should say a little prayer for her and what her music has meant to our culture and our lives.
Also on Thursday, forty-nine years after Woodstock taught us we can live in harmony for four days with no amenities, some 30,000 concert goers were headed to Watkins Glen, New York for a three day Phish music festival. Phish is a jam band who has such a devote following that people actually plan their lives around traveling to their concerts. It’s peace, love and pot. The day before, as followers from around the world were in motion to claim their slice of campsites a couple of hours south of Buffalo, torrential rain from earlier in the week washed a huge volume of debris into the wash that ultimately supplies the drinking, cooking and bathing water for the festival grounds. The New York State Department of Health shut the festival down before it began leaving thousands stranded at the site and en route at airports everywhere. It was the anti-Woodstock. While the show didn’t go on, it’s hard to believe conditions could be more deplorable than Woodstock, which on the other hand, couldn’t be stopped.
Not to be undone by two days of August history, the Mets did something on Thursday, August 16, 2018 they never did in their previous fifty-six years: that’s over nine thousand games of mostly inept baseball— they scored twenty-four runs in a single game pounding the Phillies 24-4 to remain unbeaten in their five August 15-16 music benchmark history games. Mets fans want to know why every day can’t be August 15 or 16th?
And no doubt somewhere Thursday evening up above, in an open field, probably over the state of New York and owned by Mr. Yasgur, the Babe, dead seventy years to the day, sat back in his lawn chair wearing a white beret with a couple of hot geriatrics on each arm, enjoying a fine Cohiba with a cold can of Ballantine beer and a Nathan’s hot dog. He smiles as Ed Sullivan, hunched over like we remember, gently cradles the old CBS microphone and in a soft but familiar tone says “and now for the first time on our stage a really big shue” as he introduces John, George, Richie, Jimi, Elvis and making her debut, a very natural woman, Aretha.
They open with Give Peace A Chance, imploring those of us remaining below, to heed their words.