Hanging up my rock 'n' roll shoes
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 2, 2004) -- The proliferation of oldies acts in the Berkshires this summer – including the Beach Boys, the Marshall Tucker Band, and the Doobie Brothers – only served to underscore the fact that rock ‘n’ roll is aging. In fact, in just a few months rock ‘n’ roll turns 50 – at least according to those who count Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as the first rock hit. As rock ‘n’ roll hits the half-century mark, it seems as good a time as any to hang up my rock ‘n’ roll shoes -- in spite of what Chuck Willis said in his 1958 hit to the contrary. And so this edition of “The Beat” will mark the end of my 16-year-run as the Eagle’s chief pop music critic.
It’s been my privilege to cover the rock, folk, jazz and world-music beat for the Eagle since 1988. Over the course of the last 16 years, the region’s concert scene has gone through many transformations. At the time I began writing for the Eagle, Tanglewood still was in the business of presenting several pop concerts each summer. In addition to James Taylor, performers in the Shed regularly included the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Steve Winwood, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls.
In the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, the Berkshire Performing Arts Center in Lenox was the nexus of live pop, at least in the summer, playing host to an incredible array of performers, including Jackson Browne, Melissa Etheridge, John Hiatt, David Byrne, Meat Loaf, Toots and the Maytals, Michelle Shocked, Pat Metheny and Phish.
Once the National Music Foundation got hold of the property, ironically, the region’s most exciting concert venue since the heyday of Music Inn was doomed. Over the course of the last decade and a half, many clubs, concert series and festivals have come and gone. There were independent folk music series in Williamstown, North Adams and Becket, jazz jams in Sheffield, rock clubs in Pittsfield, bluegrass festivals in Lanesboro and jam-rock gatherings in Great Barrington. Some lasted a season, some lasted two, but most are history.
It’s a tough business, even when you know what you’re doing, but it’s even tougher when you don’t. Even some who did – like Mort Cooperman, who attempted to reinvent his legendary New York City nightclub, the Lone Star Café, first in North Adams and then in Pittsfield – eventually failed due to lack of support for their efforts by shortsighted municipal authorities.
Fortunately the pendulum seems to have swung around, and efforts to present popular music are now seen, however grudgingly, as part and parcel of the panoply of offerings of the Cultural Berkshires; witness the staging of successful concerts recently at Pittsfield’s First United Methodist Church and at the Mahaiwe Theatre over the last few years. There still seems to be a knee-jerk reaction against large gatherings featuring rock music, however – even though the audience for many of those gatherings is often nearly as gray as those coming to hear the BSO at Tanglewood.
Those music series that have succeeded generally have been allied with one of the region’s more established cultural venues. More than just an art museum, Mass MoCA has transformed the area’s performing arts scene, bringing top names to the region including Patti Smith, Los Lobos, Rosanne Cash, They Might Be Giants and Suzanne Vega to the region. The Clark Art Institute and the Berkshire Museum have well-established folk and world-music programs, and the Guthrie Center has persevered over the years to become a leading presenter of summertime entertainment.
For years the biggest vacuum in the Berkshires was the lack of a year-round venue presenting well-curated, national talent, along the lines of what one typically finds at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton. Several club owners tried and failed in North Adams and Pittsfield, but it wasn’t until Deborah McDowell and Marc Schafler opened Club Helsinki in Great Barrington that the Berkshires truly got the nightclub it deserved. It’s hard to believe Helsinki has lasted this long, but this fall the club will celebrate its fifth anniversary. That’s an historic landmark for any nightclub anywhere, and if Helsinki doesn’t make it to 25 like the Iron Horse just did, its owners can still be proud of what they have accomplished in just a few short years and against all odds in a quirky space that belies the economics of the concert business.
As for me, it’s time to hang up my rock ‘n’ roll shoes. They were always a little tight on me, anyway.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 2, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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