Making a Music Revolution: Boston Keeps this Tea Party on Stage and Radio

Making a Music Revolution: Boston Keeps this Tea Party on Stage and Radio

     It was 1969, or thereabouts. A guy owed me money, and I needed it back. We agreed that he’d pay me, but I had to come to his workplace to get it. And he worked at a place called the Boston Tea Party. 

     He was a friend of a friend, and I didn’t know him all that well. The guy was maybe a staffer of the rock club, maybe a janitor, it was hard to tell. But on the afternoon we met at the converted synagogue, it was being used as rehearsal space. The band was amazing. 

     “Who’s that?” I asked.

     “Oh, a guy named Geils, his new band.” 

      And that was the first time I heard the J. Geils Band and its frontman, the Woofa Goofa DJ from WBCN, Museum of Fine Arts School student and Faye Dunaway’s future husband: Peter Wolf.

In May of 1969 the Boston Tea Party hosted bands including: The Jeff Beck Group, The Who, Joe Cocker and the Grease Band, Led Zeppelin, The Velvet Underground, The Allman Brothers, and Delaney & Bonnie

     Boston was like that back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, music everywhere. From the folk clubs in Cambridge to the jazz clubs in the Back Bay, from the take-your-life-in-your-hands Hillbilly Ranch in Park Square to the new rock clubs opening around Boston. And especially on WBCN-FM (The American Revolution).

     It is not hyperbole to say that when the weather was good and folks had their windows open, you could walk down Hemenway Street and hear WBCN — listen to WBCN — without a radio. 

     And “Revolution” was not just a catchphrase, not just a nod to the antiwar movement and cultural upheaval taking place in the streets. As Thunderclap Newman sang in “Something in the Air”: “Call out the instigators/ Because there’s something in the air/ We’ve got to get together sooner or later/ Because the revolution’s here/ and you know it’s right/ And you know that it’s right …”

Boston music venue Hillbilly Ranch in a photo from the Music Museum of New England

     WBCN — from Charles Laquidara on “The Big Mattress” in the morning to Oedipus’ “Nocturnal Emissions” in the wee hours — was essential listening. It was revolutionary, at least as far as Boston radio was concerned. 

     News and public affairs. Free-form DJs playing anything and everything — and saying anything and everything. Commercials, mostly for head shops, clubs and record stores, without flash or jingles. And if you were stranded and out of cash? Call the “Listener Line.” They’d hook you up with a ride. 

     It didn’t last, of course. Once Congress allowed multiple-station ownership, the end was ordained. But many of the original ’BCN crew — Laquidara, Oedipus, Danny Schechter (“your news dissector”), Sam Kopper, Matt Siegel, Debbie Ullman, J.J. Jackson — moved on to other stations and stayed connected to music or media in one way or another. Laquidara even had his own internet radio station for a while, complete with its own app.

     Bill Lichtenstein, an Emmy-winning writer and producer for ABC Sports and CBS News, was 14 and in junior high when he began at WBCN in 1970 as a newscaster and announcer. Since 2012, he has been working on a documentary about WBCN titled “WBCN and The American Revolution” (tag: “The incredible, true story of how a radio station, politics and rock and roll changed everything”).  

In the past year, it has been screened at film festivals and offered on select livestreams. On TV, the documentary has aired on PBS stations across the country. A DVD of the documentary and a companion book, “WBCN and the American Revolution: How a Radio Station Defined Politics, Counterculture and Rock and Roll,” are available to purchase at the film’s web page.

     WBCN’s Wolf had a good run with the J. Geils Band, and Wolf has carried on as a solo recording artist and touring musician with his band, the Midnight Travelers. 

     The conventional wisdom of the ’60s — the music won’t last, don’t trust anyone over 30 and marijuana will never be legal — didn’t turn out to be very wise. 

     During the early ’60s folk music renaissance, Dylan played Boston; Joan Baez played Boston; Pete Seeger played Boston. But they weren’t from Boston. Tom Rush was, by way of his birthplace in Portsmouth, N.H., and Harvard University. He played the local clubs — especially the Unicorn Coffee House and Club 47, where he had a residency.

     His ear for talent — he was the first artist to cover songs by Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor — and his distinctive “knife edge” guitar style propelled him into mainstream success, initially with the “Circle Game” album in ’68 (his sixth record), and later with a string of fine albums on Columbia Records. 

Tom Rush playing in the spring of 1967 (Photo courtesy of Al Blixt)

     I first saw him at Club 47, then again in 1969 in Hartford, Conn., where he played a surreal set at a hot rod show. On stage, now long-haired and bell-bottomed, he played those quiet, sensitive songs from “The Circle Game.” A short guitar toss away, a ruckus was being raised at a dunking-stool booth: bam, RING! SPLASH! screams. Crazy. 

Tom Rush in a contemporary photo by Medora Hebert

    Most recently, we saw Rush in October 2021 at City Winery in Chicago. He had the crowd — yes, most of the audience was within hailing distance of his 78 years — mesmerized with his classics, especially “Panama Limited,” and in stitches with his “Remember Song”: 

     “I’m looking for my wallet and car keys/ Well they can’t have gone too far/ Just as soon as I find my glasses/ I’m sure I’ll see just where they are.” 

     Another Club 47 alum, Chris Smither, found his way from Miami to New Orleans to Cambridge in the mid-’60s. His country blues fingerstyle guitar playing is amazingly fluid and graceful, and his only concert accompanists are his feet, keeping time on a mic’d-up board. (He has included his feet in the band credits section of album liner notes.)

     He told me in an interview once that he started putting a mic on his feet after realizing that his poorer performances happened on carpeted stages, where he couldn’t hear his feet. 

     “I just can’t keep my feet still,” he said. “From that moment on, my live performances became so much more consistent and well received.”

     Smither is 77, still touring and recording. In March 2021, he put on a series of three livestreams from the Parlor Room in Northampton, Mass., including a “master class” with fellow musician Peter Mulvey breaking down Smither’s guitar technique. 

     Rush and Smither were in fine company on the roster of Club 47 artists. The club began in 1958 at 47 Mount Auburn St. in Cambridge and moved to its current location on Palmer Street in 1963 and became known as Passim in 1969. 

     The club was instrumental in introducing Boston audiences not only to Dylan, Baez, Rush, Mitchell, Smither and, yes, Jimmy Buffett, but to Black artists — Mississippi John Hurt, Jackie Washington and Muddy Waters among them.

     The little club on Palmer Street — really just an alley between Church and Brattle — continues to exert influence with a full calendar of performances, in-venue dining, and music classes and scholarships. 

     Club 47 was also home to a collegiate press preview performance by psychedelic rock band Earth Opera. The band lasted only a couple of years, leaving behind WBCN favorites “The Red Sox are Winning” and antiwar “American Eagle Tragedy.” 

      The core of that band was guitarist/mandolinist/songwriter Peter Rowan of Wayland, Mass., and David Grisman of Hackensack, N.J. Unbeknownst to many of us at that press preview show, both players had already found success in acoustic and bluegrass music: Rowan as a member of bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe’s band, and Grisman in the Even Dozen Jug Band with future stars Maria Muldaur and John Sebastian (Lovin Spoonful). (Perhaps we should have read the PR materials.)

     Grisman and Rowan went on to join Jerry Garcia in Old & In the Way and continue to have prolific solo careers.

     Where else did we hang out? 

— Paul’s Mall/Jazz Workshop (1953-1978), 733 Boylston St. (across from the Prudential Center): Miles played there. The Duke played there. And Bob Marley. Springsteen. Muddy Waters. Earth, Wind and Fire, and Kool & the Gang. Billy Joel. Highbrow. Oh, and Aerosmith.

— Psychedelic Supermarket (1967-1969?), 590 Commonwealth Ave. (swallowed by Boston University): Far out, man. Cream, the Dead, the Mothers (of Invention), Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish. Cheer! “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?/ Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn/ Next stop is Vietnam.”

— Boston Tea Party (1967-1970), 53 Berkeley St. (later at 15 Lansdowne St.): Oh, NYC and Frisco, you had a Fillmore? We had a Tea Party. Led Zeppelin. J. Geils Band. The blues band incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. And the Jeff Beck Group, the original one, with future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and some guy named Rod Stewart. 

     The Tea Party was also proving ground for many Boston bands that opened for the national touring acts. Remember the Boston Sound (the Bosstown Sound): Orpheus, Ultimate Spinach and the Beacon Street Union. The latter included the late John Lincoln Wright, a Boston native who bucked all local trends by playing country music with his band the Sour Mash Boys at the Hillbilly Ranch in Park Square. 

     The talented songwriter also masqueraded as Pine Tree John and the Designated Hitters, whose 45 rpm single “The Red Sox Song (A Day in Fenway Park)” brightened up the summer of ’76.

— Hillbilly Ranch, 25 Eliot St. (late ’50s-1980): Sailors on leave, couples from the suburbs and happy bar hoppers from the Combat Zone mingled at Boston’s only country and bluegrass bar. Located in old Park Square next to a bus station, the Ranch stood out among other sore thumbs in the neighborhood with its faux rustic Hillbilly Ranch and beer-brand signs. But if you were a fan of locals such as John Lincoln Wright and the great rockabilly singer Sleepy LaBeef, or touring acts such as Ernest Tubb and Tex Ritter, it was the place — well, the only place — to go. Yeehaw.

— Cambridge Common Concerts (1967-1975): Where the hippies met. One of my favorite places. One afternoon, I saw a guy hanging around the stage, asking — pleading — to be allowed to play a couple of songs. He looked tired, hungry and frankly desperate. He also looked kind of familiar. And he got a shot onstage that day. His voice was unmistakable. He was a Taylor — Livingston, brother of James, who still performs nationally and is a longtime faculty member at Berklee College of Music. 

Many fine acts played the Common: Liv’s brother James, Smither, Geils, Modern Lovers, even ZZ Top. 

Breathe deeply, man, yeah, hold it …