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Hippie Heaven: A Night at the Fillmore East

A night at the Fillmore East in hippie heaven, 1970. A thinly disguised Felix Pappalardi and Leslie West of Mountain. Excerpted from my future novel, All Roads Lead To Great Neck.

It was Bruce’s first time bearing witness to the fat guitar god from Queens—Lazlo West, whose band Volcano was the heir to Cream, and had surpassed Cream as far as Bruce was concerned. A counterpoint to the skinny English super guitarists, Lazlo was huge and played like a fat man. He had the richest, fattest tone ever achieved, enhanced by the operatic technique of his fingers, not just his wall of Sunn amps. The 1958 Les Paul Jr., with its baseball bat neck and crude single-coil pickup was like a live electric eel in Lazlo’s hands. Some unearthly instrument of lightening, bouncing off his great belly and wrought under submission. His vibrato was greater than Clapton’s. In the eyes of Bruce’s friends, Lazlo somehow proved that fat guys made great guitarists.
The Fillmore East was the antithesis of school. The sacred music hall began as a Yiddish theater, part of the Jewish Rialto across 2nd Avenue. The kids were oblivious to this. But there was a Yiddish soul to the theater, in as much as buildings have a soul. Designed in Medieval Revival style, the narrow facade and marquee out front belied the palace that awaited within. Bruce made the pilgrimmage twice a month with his entourage of freaks. They went to hear underground music that only they knew about. Or so they thought till they arrived. They were stunned to find these bands drew other music freaks from god knows where (the tri-state area?) And they all came together at Mecca. The Fillmore reached its full capacity of 2,700 for each of the four shows on Friday and Saturday nights.
Let’s escape on our hippie time-space ship in our dirty hippie space suits and go back a half century into the hippie land of Um Tut Sut, where anything goes, man, and there’s no one to answer to and the whole adult world is just a fucked-up land of straights.
St. Mark’s Place. The atmosphere was thick with patchouli. Hari Krishnas with single locks of hair chanted, bearing copies of the Bhagavad-Gita. Balding beatniks viewed psychedlic freaks with an air of resignation, knowing their time had passed. Radical art ruled the street, its creators opposed to capitalistic museums for the ruling class. Poetry was Revolution. Guerrilla theater yippies disrupted traffic. One of them grabbed Bruce by his Navy pea jacket.
“Help us end the war before they turn your son into a butcher or a corpse!”
Bruce flashed a V, the peace sign. For the first time Sue did, too. The yippie flashed it back as he marched around in mock Hup-two-three-four army formation.
“This is Sue,” said Bruce, falling into military step. “She digs Bobby Sherman.”
“Cool,” said the dirty yippie. He offered a toke from his joint and Disoto partook.
The two children from Great Neck walked past ghostly tenements with sagging floors, the stairways crooked with time. Inhabited by runaways, tribal hippies and lumpenproles. At odds with all of this was a working-class Irish bar with the sign: “If Your (heart) is Not in America You Had Better Get Your [donkey ass] Out.” And underneath that, a sign for those partial to Yogi Berra’s New York: “We Proudly Serve Rheingold.” Sitting inside were aging anarchists who fought against fascism in Spain in the 1930s, now in their sixties. Bruce and Sue hadn’t a clue, but they looked like they had once done something significant.
The East Village was beautiful, all right. There was nothing chic, gentrification didn’t exist. Just urban wasteland, squatter apartments and cast-away furniture piled on side streets. The old soul of the neighborhood intersected seamlessly with its new psychedlic ambiance. Stealthy Ukrainians lurked in tenements, peering out from the Austro-Hungarian empire or someplace like that. Aged women pushed shopping carts in decrepit burquas and sat side by side with stone freaks on park benches, oblivious to the 1960s. Oblivious to posters of long-haired freak underground rock bands. These posters were a new manifestation, something once only viewed behind glass fronts at movie theaters. They reflected a newly acquired cult of personality for Humphrey Bogart, Che Guevara and Zappa Krappa. Newsstand kiosks bloomed with Zap, Screw, Horseshit. Underground papers, ’zines and manifestos that made The Village Voice seem like pablum. They revealed subversive thoughts that Bruce figured only he and his friends had. Where did such contraband come from, this literature that fucked the minds of suburban children and foretold of some impending revolution?
Incense, hash pipes and exotic brands of rolling paper flourished in an Arab trading post. Forbidden accoutrements new to the public square. Not to be found in Great Neck or anywhere else in Amerika but Haight Asbury.
Further down 2nd Avenue, Master Locks appeared on metal gates with skull and crossbones graffiti. These stores were closed at night. Was this because of crime, wondered Sue? The very word had a grimey connotation. Eewww. And to the East lay the inpenetrable alphabet streets. The ABC’s were never so ominous. Puerto Rican slums lay in the cut—too treacherous for the psychedelic Maoists or Buddhists or Krishnas. The Fillmore East audience kept to 2nd Avenue. They came for the music, and the music only.
Bruce led Sue to the tenement of a Lower East Side Slum Goddess, an ex-girlfriend of Bruce’s estranged, much older brother. It was across from the Truck & Warehouse Theatre on East 4th Street, where Steambath was playing. The dad of one of Bruce’s schoolmates wrote the show, and he’d seen it. They entered the door, which had no lock.
It opened upon a kitchen with a cast iron bathtub on the floor. The room was furnished with Ukrainian rubbish salvaged from the street. Doors were replaced with curtains, with no need for privacy. The Goddess was in the kitchen bathtub, her leg dangling over. Even those who lived by the principle of filth needed a good soaping now and then. Maybe because Bruce was coming. Slum Goddess was blissed out, inhabiting higher regions of consciousness. The physical world was a mirage.
“This is Sue Kates,” introduced Bruce. “She digs Bobby Sherman.”
“Huh?” said the goddess. “Here, have a toke.”
Steam fizzed from the old radiator, intermingling with hash smoke. Slum Goddess passed the pipe to Bruce without fanfare, her tits swinging over the tub. He partook. He held his smoke and passed it on to the left to Sue, which was proper dope etiquette. Sue Kates had never seen the likes of any of this. She inhaled her first taste of Love, Peace and Happiness.
A maelstrom of flyers and manifestos adorned the walls. Some were lit by black lights. Photos of Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh. The Family was a group out to reshape the world in their image. An even more obnoxious tribe, The Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers, proclaimed they were the dirtiest, loudest gutter rats of the East Village—“Armed Love striking terror into the vacant hearts of the plastic Mother & pig-faced Father.” Bruce had no argument with that. Great Neck parents included some plastic mothers and pig-faced fathers. Slum Goddess had once joined the Motherfuckers in disrupting art gallery openings at the Museum of Modern Art. They supported the Viet Cong, and even opposed Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsburg for being too timid. They were also affiliated with The Scum Manifesto, a militant lesbian Society For Cutting Up Men, whose sole member went on to shoot Andy Warhol. What did Warhol have to do with men? These militant groups had been prime targets of the 9th Precinct’s Tactical Police Force.
“Boy, you sure are against the war,” said Bruce.
“We must always challenge the power structure. And challenge some more,” said Slum Goddess, from her lazy position in the tub.
“I feel so sorry for those poor little Chinese people,” said Sue. “With sun hats in rice paddies. Why are we like, bombing them?”
“Because it’s the American thing to do,” said Bruce. “And they’re little Vietnamese, Sue.”
“I saw your brother a few months ago,” said the Goddess. “He crashed here while he was getting his visa papers together.”
“He’s in Morocco now. He was in Algeria.”
“Oh, yeah? Then have another toke.”
Bruce’s brother, who he rarely saw, was on a hash-fueled pilgrimage and had some vague connection to the mystical blues-rock band, Free. He shacked up with them in England. He returned stateside every six months and was able to ingeniously smuggle in kilos of hashish direct from the source.
“I don’t feel anything,” said Sue. She lifted a copy of Rat from the floor, a newspaper run by W.I.T.C.H, the radical-lesbian-feminist Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. Then dropped it when she noticed a photo taped to the icebox refrigerator. It was an 8×10 from Tiger Beat.
“Bobby!” yelled Sue. “You have a picture of Bobby!”
“I adore Bobby Sherman!” said Slum Goddess, coming out of her stupor for the first time. And then she grew sullen. “Poor Bobby. He has sided with the military-industrial Kotex.”
She went nakedly about the room, assembling her outfit from scattered cloth. This did not pass unnoticed. It made Bruce’s high go considerably higher. Adult womanhood in its glory. But then Slum Goddess put on her fabulous Hindu robes. The three of them were out the door.
Slum Goddess led her Great Neck pilgrims to the Paradox, a Zen macrobiotic den. Earth mamas prepared steaming plates of brown rice and lentils dished out from kettles. Among the diners were a rishi and a baba or two. Bruce and Sue got themselves cups of Aduki Bean soup and Kukicha Tea. Hippie nutrition.
“I think I’m stoned now,” Sue announced, with delight. Bruce gave Slum Goddess his third Volcano ticket. Taped to the wall was a comic strip from Bijou Funnies No. 2: Um Tut Sut. Ever since Bruce read the Jay Lynch strip, he took to writing the title as an answer on math tests.
Something absolutely beautiful that hippies weren’t even aware of: Hip-hop and gangsta rappers weren’t even born yet. No suburban white girls making gang signs. The world was without millions of corporate-rap spewing kids that would later come to pollute, ruin and clash with everything once held sacred. They didn’t exist, and hippies were blissfully unaware they ever would.

Bruce, Sue and the Goddess took their seats, programs in hand. The seats were of a dark purple fabric that harkened back to the Yiddish Rialto, where the sweatshop weary flanks of their ancestors once sat. Ratner’s pastries sold in the mezzanine lobby, the same as in Yiddish theater times. The printed Fillmore programs all carried a graciously worded plea:

Lighting Up? Please know that this is a public place, our adherence to certain laws is what enables us to have a theatre license. This license allows us to continue to present music to entertain you each week. IF YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT DOING SOMETHING ILLEGAL: Please realize that you are jeapardizing that license, the existence of Fillmore East, and subjecting yourself to the possibility of being arrested (the law can come in here too). PLEASE HELP

The entire theater bore much evidence of pot smoke with the underlying scent of patchouli. This was how 1970 smelled. Sue Kates smelled like Johnson’s Baby Powder, but not for long.
The stage introductions by impresario Bill Graham himself were bland, devoid of show-biz. Likewise, bands such as The Allman Brothers just set themselves and played without theatrics. They didn’t move, but oh, how they stood. Graham was born in Berlin, his mother died in Auschwitz and he escaped the Holocaust to become a waiter in the Catskills. He was a decorated Korean War vet and became a champion Mambo dancer in the 1950s. As owner of the Fillmore, Bill Graham was always embroiled in some mysterious business side of the music. His pronouncements about escalating costs struck Bruce as odd. Wasn’t this about the music? And revloution? What did legal matters and profit margins have to do with anything? Wasn’t the Fillmore supposed to transcend capitalism and licenses and things that were incorporated? Bruce had no awareness of music biz goniffs behind the scenes. Old Jews and Italians who dated back to Tin Pan Alley, devising strategies to squeeze the teenage dollar, just like with Bobby Sherman. He didn’t know about back-stabbing grabs for publishing royalties, or that Graham had to deal with cabaret licenses and ASCAP fees.
Volcano’s opening act took abuse before the headliner. A band called Ambergris opened. The lead guitarist sang plaintively, “Tell me mama, who’s the saddest, saddest one of all?” to which someone yelled “You are!”
Finally, Volcano came out mightily, unconcerned that the audience shouted down their opening act. Lazlo and the thin bass-playing maestro, Felix Vivaldi, who wrote the brilliant riffs, were decked out in leather-tendriled vests, embroidered cloaks and beads. Bruce couldn’t imagine they ever dressed otherwise, and would have been shocked to see Lazlo by day farting through tent-sized, baggy-ass denims and a stained undershirt. Fat & skinny was an old trope, like Laurel & Hardy, but made for a great counterpoint. The fiddle and the bow. Their stage presence was heart-stopping, as they slowed down the riffs from the records, intensifying the effect. Lazlo’s sweating afro-head made bathroom faces as he slapped out “pig squeel” harmonics, and performed the most stunning solo guitar spot Bruce ever heard. He never played the same solo twice. His mountainous solo on “Theme For An Imaginary Pilgrim” made Bruce weep. The audience, as per Fillmore custom, was not there to boogie. They let the sublimely eq’d immensity of the sound envelop their senses. They displayed applause only between songs. As such, it was a mystery as to why Lazlo’s audience would someday devolve into beer-swilling drunks as the whole genre would degenerate into formulated, corporate heavy metal.
“Why does the skinny guy’s guitar have only four strings, but the fat guy has six?” asked Sue Kates.
“Felix plays bass, Sue. It’s a bass guitar.” The music synapses of Sue’s brain, tickled by the first pot she smoked, were expanding this very night.
Bruce, given his keen psychedelic awareness, sensed a subtle dimension at play in the Fillmore. While kids reveled in music as their primary life force, little did they know their ancestors held a similar passion. An idealism that raged across 2nd Avenue at the turn of the century on the Yiddish stage. There in the same seats, Bruce sensed apparitions of the young, dream-stupefied Socialists, Bolsheviks and unionists who were the Left Wing radicals and yippies of their day. Poets, philosophers, dreamers amid the pushcart peddlers. Heady Lower East Side days of Russian-Jewish intellectuals arguing in saloons amidst the slums, and the birth of the anarchist and labor movements. Debating the relative merits of Trotskyism. There on the same stage where groups like Jefferson Airplane sang Got to Revolution, Bruce sensed the strange apparitions of beings he did not know. Emma Goldman, committing anarchy, illegally distributing birth control information. She was imprisoned for “inciting to riot,” inspiring the working class to revolt against the capitalists. She even resided at communal living quarters in Woodstock. Woodstock, Illinois. And there in the wings was Jacob Adler, Der Yiddisher King Lear, having outrun the Tsar, bringing Yiddish theater to New York. The Yiddish invasion preceded the British invasion by 75 years. A phenomenon that had only begun in Odessa in 1880, and would reach its pinnacle right here on 2nd Avenue. The Fillmore was originally one of twenty-two Yiddish theaters and two vaudeville houses. Naïve sweatshop girls fainted when Boris Thomashefsky merely walked out onstage. Before method acting, he gestured in the histrionic 19th century tradition, considered shund by the Yiddish Shakespeareans, a Bobby Sherman of his time. They whistled, hooted, cheered, wept and stamped in the balconies, where admission was 15 cents. Ready for battle. Sometimes they were called from the balconies to play extras onstage. Galleries of boys and girls just as passionate about the birth of the labor movement as their grandchildren were about music. Was the Fillmore the Yiddish theater of the late ’60s?
Luminaries of the Yiddish stage had such enduring mystique, Bruce could see it emanating through Lazlo and Felix. From Jacob Adler to Jake and the Family Jewels. The stars of Yiddish theater wore slashed doublets, satin cloaks, golden crowns and feathered hats. They dressed like Lazlo and Felix, like Janis and Jimi. Entire audiences wept in tribute to performers and playwrights. They witnessed translations of Gorky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Shaw and Strindberg for the first time in America. Playwrights were a different kind of guitar hero. They could give the Yippies a run for their money. Friedrich Schiller, Sholem Aleichem, The Dybbuk, by S. Ansky. The realist Jacob Gordin, who wrote The Yiddish King Lear, Zelig Itzik, The Fiddler and The Wild Man. Plays that drove socialist politics, spawning unions that pushed back against the exploitation of sweatshop slave labor, and helped the proletariat rise out of the ghetto. Only to spawn the likes of Marnin, who arose after school at 3pm and forever refused to mow his family’s lawn. Was this all lost on Marnin, who now also sat transfixed by Volcano? The reincarnation of Shmendrik?
Some of the Yiddish actors moved on to Broadway and Hollywood while the audience moved on up to the Bronx and Brooklyn. And eventually places like Scarsdale and Great Neck. As for the Fillmore, however, Bruce bore witness to nights that became Live at The Fillmore albums. Was that Carlson’s monkey hoot on side two of Johnny Winter And? Hecklers self-identified their screams on Humble Pie, Allman Brothers and even Miles Davis albums.
Bruce’s friends argued over who was greatest guitarist, the way their immigrant forefathers argued over Adler, Thomashefsky or David Kessler. The way their uncles fought over who dominated the outfield—Mays, Mantle or Duke Snider. I say Rizzuto, you sez Pee Wee Reese at short? Oh, yeah? Let’s arm wrestle. The great rock guitarists peaked when they were impossibly young, driven by some exploding logos of musical genius which reached its crescendo by 1970. Clapton had already opened up the whole universe, taking blues into the stratosphere. In 1967, there was only one who could play that way. And with Hendrix there were two. Or three, with Jeff Beck’s flash and trickery. But then came Randy California of Spirit, whose doubletracked harmonic solos were psychedelic nirvana. By the late ’60s only a handful of guitarists in the world could play that way. And suddenly there were a dozen super guitarists. Johnny Winter and the savagely funky Rick Derringer. Chicago’s Terry Kath combined super guitar with big band horns, Santana held impossibly long notes over Latin drums. Jim McCarty of Cactus performed harmonica-like hammer-ons, Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple dominated the tremelo bar. Peter Frampton worked off scales that came from god knows where; coming up were Steve Howe of Yes, who worked his magic on an ES-175, and John McGlaughlin from outer space with pentatonic speed. There were ensemble guitarists like Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath or Robert Fripp of King Crimson, or Free’s Paul Kossoff, who’s vibrato was insane, or Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, who just went insane and quit. Blodwyn Pig’s Mick Abrahams, the most underrated slow hand; million-note show-offs like Alvin Lee, and wanna-be’s like Mark Farner, and master thief Jimmy Page. George Harrison and Keith Richards, all genius aside, suddenly seemed like primatives. Dicky Betts and Duane Allman, Robbie Kreiger and Jorma Kaukonen. Hendrix didn’t even sound like a guitar player, but a force of nature. He would have transcended any instrument.
Each one of them, on any given night, was the best guitarist in the world. They were gods to Bruce. But tonight, they all seemed rail thin, especially all the skinny English guitarists. None generated so much wonder at this emerging moment as Lazlo. Lazlo was self-taught, a prerequisite of great players. He was a high school dropout who spoke the Queen’s English—Flushing, Queens, to be exact, and his voice had the texture of a guttural toilet. Pentatonic scales? “Fuck that,” Lazlo said. “I don’t know a pentatonic from a diabetic.” Music was visceral, not academic.

After the show, Slum Goddess led Bruce and Sue to the backstage exit of the Fillmore on 6th Street. They waited with a small crowd for Volcano, still entrenched in the upstairs dressing room. Private domain of the Gods. Bruce could only imagine the Fillmore dressing room, some stratified royal chamber of heaven, instead of the pigsty it was. He envied those with backstage access. Managers, agents and sycophants came and went. They served the musicians, not the other way around, the way it would become. Groupies had access. The groupies were a few years older than Bruce. He saw coteries of pretty but slobby girls in a special line. Talk about job perks for drummers. These ladies were not mere bimbos, but partisans who felt it their cultural duty to elevate great artists. They’d fuck, bathe and lovingly wash the sweaty clothes of any well-known rock musician. Women worthy of postage stamps, like Florence Nightingale and Harriet Tubman.
Three members of Volcano walked out and stopped to shake hands with fans. They were stoned, drained of the energy they’d expended onstage. But they still had a late show to do. Lazlo emerged last, in a terrible hurry. He was mobbed, and radiated contempt at the attention. Shouts rang out about his girth.
“Hey, fat boy!”
“Fatso! Over here!”
Some kid ran up in a frenzy.
“I watched you eat a whole pie at Quando’s Pizzeria in Hackensack, New Jersey, just before you went on stage at the Fox Theater!”
“Fuck off!” Lazlo pushed his way into a waiting limousine. The other members of Volcano usually took cabs, but Lazlo had a limo. Bruce managed to shout out one query.
“What strings do you use?”
“Stringbeanies,” said Lazlo, sarcastically, and then slammed the limo door. And he was gone.
Was Lazlo’s behavior the result of psychological scars from growing up fat? He hated his fans. “Pissed off as a midget with a yo-yo,” as he was prone to say.
Trouble sometimes broke out in front of the Fillmore as Puerto Rican slum kids charged from the alphabet streets. A pack of vicious, unbathed 12-year-olds, barreling like javelina hogs into mellow hippies emerging from Grateful Dead concerts. The rude clash of separate realities. A few came running toward the remaining audience tonight. “Hey, Jones!” they demanded, Jones being the presumed name for all non-Hispanics. “Gimme money!”
With unexpected gallantry, Bruce protected Great Neck’s two great natural resources, throwing his arms around Sue and steering her into Ratner’s. Slum Goddess already had a table.
Ratner’s, at 111 Second Avenue, was a 24-hour Kosher Dairy, or milchig. They didn’t serve meat. Adjacent to the Fillmore, Bill Graham kept his own table and would wine and dine the headliners with plates of food. He held court with Jimi, Janis or the Grateful Dead, his sentimental favorites from the San Francisco Fillmore.
Decades earlier, Ratner’s had been a regular spot for Jacob Adler, Al Jolson, Molly Picon, Franny Brice and even Groucho Marx. The Yiddish stage stars came from the Jewish Rialto along Second Avenue. It had now become an after-show hideout for the Fillmore elite. Aside from its red neon sign, the restaurant was so plain and ordinary that it was bypassed by the general audience. The Jewish ghetto menu was anathema. The old restaurant was just there.
An old Jew named Hy Gnee sat at the same table every night for years, sipping his glass of sour milk. A table of aging Catskills comedians, headed by Fyvush Finkel, sat oblivious to the hippies. A shmata salesman from Orchid Street sat down after closing his own store. A Chinese waiter took his order in Yiddish. They played an old joke. The salesman asked the manager, “Tell me, where did that Chinese waiter learn to speak Yiddish so well?”
“Shhh,” said the manager, “he thinks we’re teaching him English.”
Ratner’s served the same food that fueled the entire American Songbook, the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. And now, behind the scenes a generation later, hard rock musicians. Bruce, culinary wise beyond his 15 years, knew what to order. Kasha varnishkes for the table.
“I think you vant it with mushrooms,” winked the old waiter. “The mushrooms are especially good tonight.”
“Okay,” nodded Bruce, “kasha varnishkas with mushrooms, then. And three Cel-Ray tonics.”
Sue was impressed by Bruce’s worldly ways. She hadn’t a clue what anything was. A few tables away sat Buddy Miles; a short, fat peacock hunkered down over a plate of huckleberry blintzes and strawberry shortcake, with a pitcher of strawberry syrup. And there was Lee Michaels’ drummer, Frosty, and some guys from Canned Heat—Bob “The Bear” Hite and Catfish Hodge, two bluesmen as fat as they come, chowing down on potatoes and blintzes. Just what did the old waiters think of these hippies who reeked of pot, patchouli and stage sweat, which now blended with the kitchen smells of the old Jewish ghetto? Lord only knew, but when Lazlo West and Felix Vivaldi entered with their entourage, the waiters took notice. Some serious eating was about to take place. Had Lazlo taken his limo around the block and back, just for show? Yes he had. There were back slaps and congratulatory handshakes. This was Volcano’s night, their first time headlining the Fillmore. A landmark occasion, like Jolson’s debut at The Palace.
Bruce was in heaven.
Lazlo was not particularly welcome at Bill Graham’s table. Graham was a cultured German émigré who’d escaped the Nazis; Lazlo was bar-mitzvahed in Flushing with all the charm of a White Castle men’s toilet on Queen’s Boulevard. Two tables were pushed together and Volcano’s party was seated up front, within spritzing distance of Bruce. The guitarist’s girth took up three spaces, a whole row. Something impressed the old waiter about Lazlo West. He was certainly the fattest of all the rock stars that came in, and stood out in his Jewfro and leather-tendriled vest. Fatness had once been a great virtue in the ghetto of the waiter’s youth, something Yiddishe mamas would brag about amongst their poor neighbors. It signified being well fed.
“Mr. Lazlo, vhat’ll it be tonight?”
“A triple order of blintzes,” said Lazlo.
“You vant the pea soup,” instructed the old waiter. “Before the blintzes.” He told customers what they should have, regardless of what they ordered.
“Okay. And onion rolls, bring some fuckin’ onion rolls. And step on it. We got a late show to do.”
Some of the poorer customers survived on Ratner’s onion rolls. They packed their pockets when no one was looking. Felix Vivaldi ordered the pea soup only, as befitting his 130-pound frame.
“That’s all your havin’?” asked Lazlo.
“Yeah.”
“You want one of my blintzes?”
“Nah.”
Lazlo shrugged, respectful of the maestro’s delicate ways. Felix was his animal trainer, the only man to whom he deferred. Two groovy chicks were glued to Felix’s side, while he remained behind sunglasses in stoned reverie, as if hearing unheard symphonies. His genius was unquestioned at Atlantic Records, as producer and songwriter. Conservatory trained, a Baroque wizard who had also mastered orchestrations of popular song. He was once even music director for Dinah Shore. That dichotomy helped define the magic of Volcano, powered two-fold by Corker, the most sympatico drummer a hard-rock guitarist ever had. Lazlo’s visceral, explosive discharge, tamed by Felix’s conservatoire.
People came by to kiss Lazlo’s tuchus as he polished off one blintze after another. He would burn off a dozen blintzes in a two hour set, along with other toxins in his system. Sweat it right out onstage, like a fighter in full sap. He was only 25, dubiously qualified as “fat but fit.” How long would that last? Who cared, he was farting through silk. Volcano’s albums were getting gold records, busting out of the underground. When his mother used to take him to The Stage Delicatessen, he ordered two stacked corned beef and pastramis on rye, extra fatty with plenty of gristle. And if they didn’t mind, special for Lazlo, his mother had the kitchen ladle out the rendered schmaltz from used chicken pots to spread on his onion rolls. And then fry the leftover skin with onions in a pan, resulting in the funkiest concoction of the Polish ghetto, gribenes. Like Jewish bacon or chitterlings. Was that the secret of his vibrato?
Bruce watched in awe as he ate. He thought of a Volcano lyric in which Lazlo shouted, “I’m singin’ for my food.” Just hearing the word “food” sung out of Lazlo’s mouth gave the word gravitas. Countermen and sandwich board cutters throughout New York delicatessens knew young Lazlo. His fingers glistened with pastrami slime when he sampled guitars at Manny’s and Sam Ash on 48th Street. But no amount of pastrami nitrites—the bane of overstuffed Catskills comics—could slow him down. Volcano was a beast that came out onstage 280 nights a year and tore the house down. Love, Peace and Happiness, indeed.
The old waiter returned with a plate of onion rolls. Volcano’s drummer, Corker, tipped him $20 on the spot. Corker was known for his lethality on double kick drums, and his chest glowed with Fillmore sweat in an open vest. He asked about the old waiter’s background. The waiter said he was once a popular violinist in Prague before the War. But then was herded into a barbed wire ghetto, his violin smashed by the Gestapo. And then into a concentration camp. He barely survived, emerged a refugee, his hands forever crippled by Nazi slave labor. He had done menial work, but unlike Bill Graham, remained a waiter all these years.
“If I had been born 50 years later here in America? I vish my musicianship vould be like yours. And then, mebbe, I sit at Mr. Graham’s table. Instead of schlepping out blintzes.”
“That’s a fuckin’ shame,” said Lazlo. “Maybe we could bring you onstage like Papa John Creach.”
“Alas, my concertos are now kreplach, my vibrato is borscht. There is no music for me at the philharmoniker next door.”
If Lazlo himself had been born in the old world, he might have been a portly violinist from the shtetl who rose to the concert halls of Vienna and St. Petersburg. The Fat Yiddle with the Fiddle. Perhaps that same vibrato would have emerged on the violin as he stood at peak intensity onstage, flicking the bow with his wrist at full throttle, thundering violin power chords, the same bowel-moving squinch in his eyes. Was he playing a solo—or taking a shit? If he were born in Russia 50 years earlier would he have become a Jascha Heifetz or David Oistrakh, winning the Stalin Prize? Or did his spirit only generate its musical gift through rock?
“Sing your song, old man,” said Felix. The waiter put down his pencil and pad. The entire Volcano entourage became rapt in silence. The waiter began, as if auditioning. To what end no one could say. Would these acid rock musicians be the key to opening the doors to the kingdom of show business? He picked up a menu in his crippled hand to use as a dance partner. Then he launched into a feeble song and dance.

Don’t diddle in de middle
Of a shetle filled wid Yiddle
Like the Yiddle wid the fiddle
In de middle of Prague

When I was just a kinder
We lived inside a cinder
In a shtetle filled wid Yiddle
In de middle of Prague

My momma told me witches
And goblins and goyim
Would gobble and dribble
Little goils and boyim
Never wander from de shtetle
Like Hansel and Gretel
From de shetle filled wid Yiddle
In de middle of Prague

The Volcano table broke out in applause. Even Sue and Slum Goddess were charmed. Sue had now experienced a great musical awakening. The Fillmore laid waste to all the Bobbys she had ever known—Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Goldsboro, and especially Bobby Sherman. Her musical circuitry developed new levels of understanding.

–Josh Alan Friedman

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