Saturday, 18 September 2010

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen Performance List 1969: Berkeley Beginnings

(A flyer for the Grateful Dead show at the Family Dog on The Great Highway, August 29-30, 1969, representing the first known appearance of Commander Cody on a Bay Area rock artifact)

COMMANDER CODY Performance List 1969
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were the second group from Berkeley to have a successful rock and roll music career, after Country Joe and The Fish. Of course, the members of both bands have considerably fuzzier memories and fewer dollars than fans might think appropriate to genuine legends, but such was rock music stardom in the 1960s. However, the ubiquity of the band’s 1972 hit was so great that people of a certain age who grew up in the Bay Area, whether or not they recall the name Commander Cody, know that Pappy said son, you’re gonna drive me to drinking, if you don’t stop driving that Hot—Rod—Lincoln.

Of course, quite a number of successful Bay Area bands had roots in the East Bay. Creedence Clearwater Revival was one of the biggest bands of the 1960s, and they were very much an East Bay band. Their label, Fantasy Records, was on 10th Street (at Parker) in Berkeley, and John Fogerty took guitar lessons in Berkeley, among many other Berkeley connections. However, Creedence could more fairly be termed an “East Bay” band, which certainly included Berkeley, but they were not an exclusively Berkeley band. The group was actually formed in El Cerrito, and the band members lived around various cities in the East Bay as the band evolved. Tower of Power were the pride of Oakland, and they played Berkeley many times, but they were not Berkeley centered in the manner of Country Joe and The Fish and Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were also interesting in that the key members of the band moved to the Bay Area in order to succeed, as did many 60s bands, but Cody and company actually achieved their goal. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s mixture of honky tonk, rock and roll and Texas swing, with a twist of hip self-consciousness, made them a Berkeley band, playing modified versions of strains of popular music little known to middle-class suburbanites.

Cody and the Airmen were from Ann Arbor, MI, but Berkeley and Ann Arbor have always had a symbiotic relationship. In the late 20th century, the Universities of Michigan and California (at Berkeley) were the top public schools in the nation, and the traffic back and forth was thick with scholars, activists and musicians.

There are two very entertaining accounts of the founding of the Airmen on the web, a story in George (Cody) Frayne’s own words and an old Ed Ward article from Rolling Stone. Both of these stories, while hugely entertaining, are full of various amusing exaggerations. Neither is very helpful with respect to the timeline of the early days of the band in the Bay Area (Cody’s story actually gets the year wrong), so I am rectifying that here. What follows is a chronology of the first six months in the East Bay for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. This chronicle is based on the best information available to me at this time. Anyone with additional insights, corrections or recovered memories (real or imagined) should Comment or email me.

Ann Arbor 1967-69
University of Michigan graduate students George Frayne (Fine Arts, piano) and John Tichy (Physics, guitar) had formed the group in Ann Arbor in 1967 as Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, as an homage to an obscure movie serial (actually called Kommando Kody). The group was a loose aggregation of local musicians, and was a continuation of a band that Frayne and Tichy had begun as undergraduates. Although the story gets changed and embellished with each telling, it does seem that the band chose the name and then had to “decide” who was “Commander Cody,” since people kept asking. For reasons that change periodically with each retelling, George Frayne was designated as Commander Cody.

George Frayne received his MFA in Spring 1968 and got a position teaching Art at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh (the main campus was at Madison—Oshkosh was a satellite). The Commander Cody band continued on with various members throughout the 1968-69 school year. Frayne did come home to play with Commander Cody on weekends, but ultimately the band “fired” him in order to be able to play more gigs. The Commander Cody band was particularly interested in playing “honky tonk” country music, in a Bakersfield style that was distinct from the fashion popular in Nashville, as well as rocked up versions of Texas Swing music, all of which was largely lost on the R&B oriented fans in Michigan. The band finally ground to a halt in the Spring of 1969 when guitarist Bill Kirchen headed out West to California.

Bill Kirchen had been in the Detroit psychedelic blues band The Seventh Seal, but he had also been a part-time member of the Cody outfit. The Seventh Seal ended sometime in late 1968, and in early 1969 Kirchen left the Kody band and headed out for the West Coast. Around the same time, Cody singer Billy C Farlow, a member of the Detroit band Billy C And The Sunshine Band, had joined the group of Chicago blues drummer Sam Lay for a tour. However, Lay’s band folded out on the West Coast, and Farlow and Kirchen joined forces.

Farlow and Kirchen had put together a band called The Ozones and found a regular booking at a "Hillbilly bar" on Mission Street in San Francisco called Harris’s Town Pump. In June of 1969, with the academic year ending, Kirchen called Frayne and John Tichy, and persuaded them both to put their academic careers on hold and try music in the Bay Area. Frayne was already tired of college teaching after just one year, and Tichy was willing to put his graduate career in physics on hold. Kirchen reported that no bands in the Bay Area were playing what they were, so the Coast was clear. In any case, there had always been such a regular transit between Berkeley and Ann Arbor than any U. of Michigan student who moved to Berkeley did not even have to make new friends (I’m not exaggerating).

June 1969: Harris’s Town Pump, San Francisco, CA: The Ozones
The story of The Ozones residency at Harris’s Town Pump is mostly known from the Ed Ward article a year later. Apparently, it was a Hillbilly dive on Mission Street at 18th, not too far from Dolores Park (a picture is here). During the Ozones' time there, the club seems to have been sold to Samoan proprietors and the bar seems to have undergone a transformation. In any case, it remains a mystery to this day who else was in The Ozones besides George Frayne (piano), Bill Kirchen (lead guitar, vocals), Billy C Farlow (vocals, harmonica) and John Tichy (guitar, vocals).

While the band seems to have been playing their unique brand of hippie honky-tonk several nights a week at Harris’s Town Pump, they also seem to have been making plans to become a real band, using the name Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen. The numerous amusing tales told by Frayne and others about their early days in San Francisco—while likely true—mask a complete seriousness to give up potentially paying jobs in teaching or music in order to perform their own style of music, which was years ahead of its time.

July 4, 1969: outside Cody’s Books, Haste St and Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, CA: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
According to George Frayne’s own version of the saga, the first official performance of the band was an acoustic performance on Telegraph Avenue outside of Berkeley’s popular Cody’s Bookstore (just down the block from Moe’s, and three blocks up from campus). Frayne played accordian, and Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band drummer Tom Ralston (an old friend from Michigan) played a little percussion, so the performance seems to have been of great ceremonial importance to the band. It’s unlikely many or any other people recall it however—in true 1969 Berkeley fashion, the performance was interrupted by a full blown riot, complete with tear gas.

What little evidence that can be gleaned suggests that throughout the Summer Frayne, Tichy, Kirchen and Farlow were putting together the West Coast version of Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen. The band members found a house in Emeryville, a tiny town on the bay near the Oakland/Berkeley border, and that became the “band house” that is a foundational myth in many band stories. Emeryville, once an important transportation hub, had a lengthy history of drinkin’, gamblin’, sinnin’ and good times, perfect for the Commnander Cody persona (indeed the only other Emeryville band I know of was the notorious Country P*rn, with Chinga Chavin).

I think the Berkeley performance on July 4 was an event of importance to the band members, even though they did not yet have a rhythm section. However, they seem to have been in the process of putting one together. By mid-Summer, the initial lineup of the group seems to have been
  • Billy C Farlow-vocals, harmonica
  • Bill Kirchen-lead guitar, trombone, vocals
  • John Tichy-guitar, vocals
  • Steve “West Virginia Creeper” Davis-pedal steel guitar
  • Andy Stein-fiddle, tenor sax
  • George “Commander Cody” Frayne-piano
  • Lance Dickerson-drums
  • Gene Tortora-bass
Steve Davis had been the bass player in one of the early bands formed by Tichy and Frayne back in the mid-60s, and among many other things he had been the State Trampoline champion. One of the many forgotten peculiarities about the refreshing persona of Cody and the Airmen was that for Berkeley hippies, they had a distinctly “jock” persona, in that they were all huge sports fans, independent of their commitment to revolution and weed (until this century, Michigan has always had a great football program, and Berkeley has always been indifferent, and this one was one of the few profound differences between Ann Arbor and Berkeley). Since his undergraduate days, Davis had learned to play pedal steel guitar. According to Cody legend, Davis had wanted to be “Commander Cody,” but was outvoted by other band members, and was given the name “West Virginia Creeper” instead.

Andy Stein was a classically trained violinist who also played bluegrass and country fiddle, not to mention tenor saxophone. Stein’s ability to switch from fiddle to saxophone gave the Airmen their distinct stylistic versatility. Stein was from New York, although I’m not certain if he knew Frayne from High School (Frayne grew up in Long Island). In any case, Stein played with the band on occasion in Michigan, and seems to have come out to Berkeley to join the Airmen. One of the more concrete bits of evidence about the band’s genesis turns out to be that Andy Stein played fiddle in High Country, Berkeley’s finest bluegrass band, throughout the Summer of 1969 while waiting for Cody and the Airmen to start performing regularly (this information courtesy bassist George Inskeep). Stein, too, was putting aside considerable training to throw in his lot with Cody, so for all the band’s bravado it was a very serious enterprise.

Lance Dickerson had been the drummer for Charlie Musselwhite in early 1969, which is how he met Billy C Farlow, who at the time was on tour with Sam Lay’s band. When Musselwhite’s aggregation stopped playing, Dickerson was available to join the fledgling Airmen.

August 11, 1969: Mandrake’s, Berkeley: Audition Night: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
According to the Ward article, Cody and The Airmen debuted at audition night at a Berkeley club called Mandrake’s, at 1048 University (near San Pablo Avenue). Mandrake’s was a little beer joint that generally featured blues and danceable rock. The Cody crew had so many friends from Ann Arbor that they managed to pack the place on a weeknight, so they were immediately booked. While the Cody band was a terrific outfit, it was a fact that Ann Arborites moved to Berkeley with their social life intact, so Cody already had a built in fanbase in Berkeley.

The Airmen's integration into Berkeley was so seamless that their audition show at Mandrake's was reviewed in the next week's Berkeley Barb. Clearly written by a friend of the band, the article included a photo of the group (above) and the headline "Real Country Rock." However, a waitress who worked at Madrake's at the time thinks that the photo was not from the club, although she recognizes Cody and the Airmen circa 1969. We have assumed the photo was taken in Michigan, and given to the Barb writer for publication, but I would love to know exactly where it was taken.

August 23, 1969: Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco: Quicksilver Messenger Service/Sons of Champlin with Jimmy Witherspoon/Anonymous Artists of America
1969 was the Summer of Rock Festivals, and San Francisco was going to have its own on the weekend of August 22, called The Wild West Festival. Ultimately the grand three-day event in Golden Gate Park was canceled, leaving numerous bands without a gig and the organizers holding many debts. A number of last second events were held at Fillmore West and The Family Dog, which I have written about elsewhere.

According to the Ward article, Cody and the Airmen opened for Quicksilver and “only two people attended the show.” Quicksilver played Saturday night at the Dog, and Ralph Gleason reviewed the show, and a lot more than two people were there. However, its reasonable to assume that Cody played early and few people were there when they played. The group was not listed in any of the last-second publicity. 

August 25, 1969: Jewish Community Center, San Francisco: Larry Hanks/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/many others “Golf Festival”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ralph Gleason gave Commander Cody their first mention in the Monday, August 25, 1969 edition (above). Larry Hanks and Cody were playing a “Golf Festival” at the Jewish Community Center. What was this? Was anyone there ready to be “Lookin At The World Through A Windshield” and dancing to some hippie honky tonk?

Although the official name of the group was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the band was often billed as just “Commander Cody” or “Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen.” This confusion has continued into the present day.

August 28-30, 1969:  Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco: Grateful Dead/New Riders of The Purple Sage/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Rubber Duck Company
The first real exposure for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen was third on the bill at Chet Helms’s Family Dog on The Great Highway, behind The Grateful Dead and The New Riders of The Purple Sage. While Commander Cody’s swinging honky tonk may sound comfortable to our ears, it was odd stuff in late 1969, and a Grateful Dead concert was as good a place as any for them to be heard (poster up top).

Keep in mind, however, that in late 1969 the Dead’s current album was the psychedelic Aoxomoxoa, and while the Dead had started to play the more countrified material later found on Workingman’s Dead, their audience wasn’t yet assimilated to the Buck Owens sound. This weekend was also a very early performance for the New Riders of The Purple Sage, who were often tied together with the Airmen throughout the early 1970s. At one point, in fact, the Riders and Cody had the same management. The New Riders, however, played in a much more melodic style, with greater focus on songwriting, while Cody and the Airmen were a more swinging, danceable aggregation.

The poster advertised shows on Friday (29) and Saturday (30), but it appears that all the bands played on Thursday August 28 as well.

September 2-4, 1969: Mandrake’s, Berkeley: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
Cody and The Airmen played Tuesday through Thursday at Mandrake’s, presumably the result of their successful audition somewhat earlier.

September 9, 1969: Mandrake’s, Berkeley: Commander Cody and HIs Lost Planet Airmen 

September 12, 1969: Freight and Salvage, Berkeley: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
The Freight and Salvage was Berkeley’s premier folk club (and still is). There cannot have been much financial benefit for an 8-piece band playing the 87-seat Freight and Salvage, but the Airmen played the Freight regularly, presumably because it was near their house, it was a fun gig and it provided an opportunity to work on new material. The Freight lacked a liquor license, nor did it allow smoking—a first for a nightclub as far as I know—so its an indication of the sincerity of Cody and The Airmen that they regular played the Freight under such restrictions (that is, they had to go across the street to The Albatross to drink and smoke).

Nonetheless, this Friday night appearance at the Freight appears to have been the first weekend headline booking in the Bay Area for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.

September 19-20, 1969: Freight and Salvage, Berkeley: Alice Stuart/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
The Freight calendar just has Alice Stuart on the 19th, and the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band on the 20th, whereas The Berkeley Barb has Stuart and Commander Cody for both nights. It does seem possible that it was one or the other, but Alice Stuart was close friends with the Cody crew (a 1969 tape circulates with her standing in on bass with the Airmen), so perhaps they did play together. In any case, it is uncertain who actually played bass with the Airmen at this time, and maybe she was temporarily part of the group.

September 30, 1969:  Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Flying Circus/Deluxe/Clover
This event was presented by the 13th Tribe. It was  a Tuesday night event featuring local bands.
   
October 3-4, 1969: New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA AB Skhy/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
The New Orleans House, at 1505 San Pablo Avenue, was a little farther up Berkeley’s rock and roll food chain. Cody and the Airmen played a weekend booking with AB Skhy, a Wisconsin band who had moved to the Bay Area the previous year and developed a solid following.

October 5, 1969: Freight and Salvage, Berkeley: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

October 7, 1969:  Fillmore West, San Francisco: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Gods Country/Sunday
The Fillmore West had a Tuesday night audition series, largely obscured by history, that I have written about extensively. The $1.00 admission shows gave bands a chance to showcase themselves for both Bill Graham’s organization and local talent agents and record company staff. No posters or flyers advertised the show; press releases that got mentioned in local papers are one of the few ways we have to trace these events.

Given the date, this must have been how the group made themselves known to the Bill Graham organization, who seemed to have hired them to back Doug Kershaw a few weeks later (see October 24-26 below). There were many Bay Area country bands who could have backed Kershaw, but they were not part of the Bill Graham Presents universe at the time, and Cody’s timely audition must have fit nicely with the need for them.

October 10-11, 1969: The New Old Fillmore, San Francisco: Flamin Groovies/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Phoenix
The Flamin Groovies (a San Francisco band) had taken over the booking of the original Fillmore (at 1805 Geary) after Graham had decamped to the Fillmore West (the old Carousel). Ancient posters reveal a bunch of cool bands who played the venue in the Fall of ‘69, but by all accounts the “New Old Fillmore” was thinly attended.

October 23-25, 1969 UC Berkeley Folk Festival
>October 23, 1969:  Pauley Ballroom(evening) Dance: Country Joe and The Fish/Youngbloods/Vern and Ray/Janet Smith/ Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen /Jeffrey Cain/Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks
>October 24, 1969:  Pauley Ballroom (afternoon) Panel: Sam Hinton, Arthur Crudup, Alice Stewart, Charles Seeger, Charley Marshall, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Commander Cody.
>October 24, 1969:  Pauley Ballroom  (evening) Dance: Arthur Crudup/Charley Marshall/John Fahey/Opelousas Playboys/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Joy of Cooking/Billy Joe Becoat
>October 25, 1969:  Greek Theatre (afternoon) All performers.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had been “discovered” by Barry Olivier, playing for free outside of Cody’s Books. Exactly when Olivier discovered them isn’t precise, but he booked them for Berkeley’s Folk Festival in the Fall. The Folk Festival—or more accurately—the rock concert at the Folk Festival—was where Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen first got widely heard in Berkeley. There were numerous events throughout the campus on that weekend, and I have only listed the ones where the band was scheduled to play.

Bassist Buffalo Bruce Barlow, previously in Magic Sam’s blues band, joined the Airmen for this show, replacing Gene Tortora.  Barlow stayed in the band for a decade. Barlow apparently had met the group at the New Orleans House.

October 24-26, 1969: Winterland, San Francisco Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Sons Of Champlin/Doug Kershaw
According to a reliable eyewitness, Commander Cody and the Airmen backed Doug Kershaw. Kershaw was from Louisiana but was based in Nashville, and he played a sort of Cajun/Country hybrid style of music. Kershaw had been a popular Country artist throughout the early 60s, and his biggest hits were “Louisiana Man” and “Diggy Diggy Lo.” During this period, Warner Brothers (Kershaw’s new record company) was trying to break Kershaw out to rock audiences, but rather than have a regular band he worked with local combos, a common practice in Country music. Presumably, the Bill Graham Presents staff discovered Cody and The Airmen at their October 7 Fillmore West audition, and signed them up to back Kershaw. The band probably knew many of Kershaw’s hits already—certainly they knew (and later even released) “Diggy Diggy Lo.”

This weekend’s bill was quite famous, as not only did the Airplane and the Dead play together at Winterland, but Crosby, Stills and Nash appeared during the weekend as well. Kershaw probably played a single early set on each night (Friday through Saturday). This would have given the Cody band a chance to rush back and forth from Berkeley on Friday (Oct 24), when they appeared at both afternoon and evening events at the Folk Festival.

Update: A KSAN "Fillmore West Retrospective" broadcast from 1972 has surfaced (in my house), and it includes three songs from Doug Kershaw at Fillmore West on Oct 24 or 25. Since Kershaw was backed by members of the Lost Planet Airmen, it is the earliest snapshot of the band (the songs are "Louisiana Man," "Battle Of New Orleans" and "Orange Blossom Special").

October 31, 1969: Mandrake’s, Berkeley: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen /Joy Of Cooking/Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band
A Mandrake's employee recalls Commander Cody's performance at this Halloween show. A theater troupe (The Magic Theater) performed their regular Friday night show, starting at 7:00pm, and then the club closed and reopened (with a new admission) for music. The Lost Planet Airmen's performance was filmed by local station KQED-tv, and parts of it may have been broadcast later as part of a news or documentary show. Its extremely unlikely that any footage survives, but its at least remotely possible.

Mandrake's was one of the first places where Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen had a following, probably due to the many Michiganders in Berkeley. The same employee recalled some amusing scenes from early Cody performances at Mandrake's
The people who came to see Commander Cody would throw their beer glasses against the wall at the beginning of a favorite tune, like faux rednecks, resulting in much breakage, and were sometimes encouraged by the band onstage to do this. Don got miffed after awhile and added the cost of new barware to the band's tab at the end of the night
November 1, 1969: The New Old Fillmore, San Francisco: Flamin Groovies/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Joy of Cooking/Canterbury Fair/Gold
The poster for this event suggests that Commander Cody played both Friday (October 31) and Saturday (November 1), but based on what we know about Mandrake's, I am assuming that Cody (and Joy Of Cooking) played Friday at Mandrake's and Saturday at Fillmore.

November 2, 1969:  New Orleans House, Berkeley: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Congress of Wonders/The Fourth Way/Paul Arnoldi/Mendelbaum

November 13, 1969: Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
Cotati was a hippie enclave about an hour North of San Francisco, near Sonoma State College. San Francisco and East Bay bands often played The Inn Of The Beginning. This booking was on a Thursday night. It seems to represent Cody and The Airmen’s first show outside of San Francisco or Berkeley.

November ?, 1969: Canterbury House, Ann Arbor, MI: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
Cody and the Airmen returned to Ann Arbor for what appears to be three dates. Amazingly, fairly decent sounding board tapes of two of these shows survive in their entirety. Although they represent the only early snapshot of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, circa 1969, its quite revealing nonetheless. The band’s trademark honky tonk swing sound and comical swagger is already in place. Some of the original material recorded on their 1971 debut album is also present (like “Lost In The Ozone” or “Down To Seeds and Stems Again Blues”), so even as early as 1969, Cody and The Airmen were a fully formed entity.

Oddly enough, John Tichy is not present on the two surviving tapes. Why he did not come with the group when they returned to Ann Arbor remains a mystery. Whether he was temporarily not a member of the band or simply unavailable for some reason remains completely unclear. An article in the December 15, 1969 San Francisco Examiner suggests the group is a six-piece, without John Tichy, and with Andy Stein "joining the group soon," so perhaps Tichy was not part of the band for some period.

Alice Stuart plays bass on the two recordings, and sings a couple of songs herself each night. Supposedly Bruce Barlow had already joined by this time, but perhaps he had obligations that did not allow him to come to Michigan. Stuart’s presence suggests that she was quite familiar with the band’s repertoire, only adding to the mystery of the bass player prior to Barlow’s joining the group.

November ?, 1969: [venue], U. of Michigan?, Ann Arbor, MI: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
This tape is often called the “Hill Auditorium” tape, because as the show begins, a band member says “Welcome to the Hill Auditorium,” and some people in the small audience laugh and clap. Hill Auditorium was the largest and most prestigious venue on the University of Michigan campus, with a capacity of a few thousand. Cody and the Airmen were returning from the Coast, and clearly they were joking about playing the biggest venue in town, but it was a self-evident joke that they were not playing there.

On both tapes, band members allude to “three nights in Michigan,” so I take it to mean that there was a third show somewhere.

November 22-23, 1969: Mandrake’s, Berkeley: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Magic Theatre (22nd)

November 28&30, 1969:  Family Dog at The Great Highway, San Francisco:  Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Vern and Ray/Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquility String Band
Cody and The Airmen played Friday and Sunday night at the Family Dog on The Great Highway, but they were repelaced on Saturday night by Seattle’s Floating Bridge.

December 3, 1969: Fillmore West, San Francisco: Creedence Clearwater Revival/Billy Joe Becoat/Gary Wagner Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen /Flamin Groovies KPFA Benefit
This Wednesday night show was a benefit for KPFA-fm radio in Berkeley, so the acts had a distinctly Berkeley flavor. El Cerrito’s finest, Creedence Clearwater Revival headlined the show. Billy Jo Becoat and Gary Wagner were both on Berkeley’s Fantasy Records, as were Creedence, and Cody and the Airmen added to the Berkeley flavor.

Earlier listings had different opening acts that did not include Cody, but like many benefits the bill changed before the show actually happened.

December 5-6, 1969: The Lion’s Share, San Anselmo: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Jeffrey Cain/Lambert and Nuttycombe
The Lion’s Share was a tiny musician’s hangout in Marin, but headlining a weekend there was yet another sign that Cody and the Airmen were slowly expanding their horizons.

December 7, 1969: Freight and Salvage, Berkeley: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

December 17, 1969: Union Ballroom, San Jose State College, San Jose: Lee Michaels/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
San Jose State College represented a good out of town booking for San Francisco and Berkeley bands. The San Jose area still had a strong agricultural component and a big country scene, so while the San Jose State crowd was probably a bunch of hippie students, the South Bay was still a fruitful area for expansion for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, so the band’s first six months in the Bay Area ended on an optimistic note.

I have to think the band had some sort of New Year’s booking, but I have been so far unable to find it. I am certain that there are numerous performance dates from 1969 that I have been unable to uncover, so this remains a work in progress.

1970 and Beyond
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were well ahead of their time, and moving to Berkeley allowed them to survive and thrive when they would have been too country for most hippies and too long haired for most country music fans. Country rock was starting to thrive in late 1969, but most proponents emphasized melody, songwriting and harmonies (like The Flying Burrito Brothers or The New Riders of The Purple Sage) rather than the raucous dance music of The Airmen. Nonetheless, the band was signed by ABC Paramount and released their classic first album Lost In The Ozone in 1971. Their hit “Hot Rod Lincoln” (a remake of a 1960 Johnny Bond country hit) went as high as #9 in 1972, and was ubiquitous on Bay Area AM radio.

Cody and the Airmen continued to tour successfully until about 1976, but despite some fine albums and many great shows, they never managed to cross over to lasting financial success. A 1975 incarnation of Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen was analyzed in detail in Geoffrey Stokes’s 1976 book Starmaking Machinery. Just about all the members of the 1969 incarnation have continued on in successful music careers (although drummer Lance Dickerson sadly passed away in 2004), and their have been occasional partial or full reunions over the years—I saw a fine one in Berkeley’s Provo Park on April 2, 1978.

Only guitarist John Tichy dropped out of professional music. He left the band in 1974, and—presumably with few other professional options-- ended up becoming Professor of the Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, with a long list of distinguished publications (one of his current research interests is “to develop continuum rheological models for lubricant and granular flows from molecular simulations and apply them to realistic engineering surface configurations”).

8 comments:

  1. Harris's Town Pump was on the corner of Mission and 18th St:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveglass/118012671/in/set-72157607148600556/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveglass/3913805526/in/set-72157607148600556/

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  2. VG, thanks for the correction and the great link to Harris's Town Pump. I changed the post accordingly.

    Ross also uncovered a photo of the Airmen from 1969, published in the Barb, so I added that too.

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  3. I discovered that a few songs from the Oct 24 or 25 performance at Fillmore West where Cody and the Airmen backed Doug Kershaw were broadcast on KSAN. In 1972, KSAN had a Bill Graham special where they broadcast numerous tapes from Fillmore and Fillmore West, with comments from Graham. I had forgotten that Kershaw was included. I updated the post accordingly.

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  4. I know all the details - that is the ones I can remember. This is a really complete blog of our first year's gigs. I was (and am I guess) the West Virginia Creeper. There is some controversy over how and why I left the band.
    I had only played steel guitar for a short period and wanted time. In my opinion the fact that the record we recorded in SF in 1970 has stood the test of time.

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  5. Steve, its an honor for you to note that this is "fairly complete." I certainly agree that your work (and that of the entire band) has stood the test of time, as Lost In The Ozone is the forerunner of modern Honky Tonk and Western Swing, just a couple of decades too early to make it pay.

    As to controversy, when I looked closely at various interviews and articles about the early days of the band, there does seem to have been a tendency to exaggerate stories for the sake of a good quote. I ran into all sorts of contradictions and "mistakes," most of which served the purpose of a funnier story. On the other hand, it must be strange to have part of your own career memorialized by a goofy nickname, even if in turn it creates a peculiar sort of immortality.

    Any recovered memories or corrections that may occur to you are always welcome. Put them in the Comments or email me directly (corrarnold at gmail.com)

    thanks, Corry

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  6. Steve, do you know where the photo of the band was taken that was used in the Barb (above)?

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  7. Saw the Airmen at a great gig in Scarborough , U.K. somewhere around 1972...lineup as I remember was..Cody,Billy C.,John Tichy ,Bill Kirchen ,Buffalo Bruce ,Bobby Black ,Lance Dickerson,Andy Stein..the band must have been advertised as a rock and roll revival act because all the local greasers were in attendance .Baffled at first,they were soon jiving manically ,probably for the only time , to pedal steel fuelled country/honkytonk/rockabilly !Brought the house down..then the band bus broke down on a steep road out of town .What a night .Spoke to Billy C. 30 years later & he remembered !
    ....from vp at pictorfarm@googlemail.com

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  8. If all the stories I heard growing up are true, the house on the left is the infamous band house. The house on the right was my family house for 5 generations until 1998.

    http://i.imgur.com/eUvk1dA.jpg

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