Maybe it was divine providence, or karma, or just being in the right place at the right time, but I've been fortunate to have experienced some of our musical greats from an early age.
In my English high school one afternoon, we were informed a young folk singer from America wanted to entertain us after classes. It was Paul Simon.
Way before his mass popularity with Art Garfunkel, Simon had moved to the town of Brentwood, where I went to school. It was here he made his U.K. debut in 1964, and it was here he fell in love with Kathy Chitty, who was the inspiration for classic tunes such as "Homeward Bound," "America" and "Kathy's Song." Folk music was booming at the time, and Simon traveled the country playing clubs and coffee houses. It was "the best time of his life," he declared in a recent interview.
Simon wasn't the only (future) star to play at my school. A pre-summer dance featured a sharply-groomed mod called Davey Jones with his band, The Lower Third, covering soul hits like "Land of a Thousand Dances."
Now more familiar as David Bowie.
Davey added Bowie after another English fella by the same name made it big with the Monkees.
Another American musician was making waves in England in late 1966 - guitar icon Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix arrived in September and by December he was gigging regularly around London, arriving one night in Brentwood, where he stunned about 50 curious, young fans, playing our local town hall auditorium.
Standing just a few feet away from this guitar god I had never seen or heard anything like it before - incendiary classics like "Purple Haze," "Foxy Lady" and "Hey Joe" - playing guitar behind his head, and with his teeth, seemingly unconcerned about his tiny, though totally mesmerized audience.
A month earlier, Hendrix had played the legendary Marquee club, with most of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in attendance. In May, the Jimi Hendrix Experience debut album, "Are You Experienced," was released, and the world woke up to a new phenomenon.
Attending college in London at this time felt like hitting the counter-cultural jackpot. Weekends we'd trot down to UFO, the first underground club, to hear groups like Pink Floyd and Traffic play all-nighters. Then the scene moved to another all-night club called Middle Earth, where the Byrds announced at one show, "This is our last gig as the Byrds, we are now going to play bluegrass."
I ended up organizing college dances, which included Fleetwood Mac and Ten Years.
Flash back to July 1966, journeying to the annual National Jazz & Blues Festival in the royal town of Windsor. The fest was a showcase for the best British rock, jazz and pop bands of the time, and the bill that year included The Who, the Small Faces, The Move, Spencer Davis with Steve Winwood, and the official debut of a new group that didn't have a name at the time, but featured Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker - Cream.
Ten thousand fans braved pouring rain and mud to hear the ferocious power of this new blues/rock trio. Two years later I also caught their final show at the Royal Albert Hall, immortalized in the DVD "Farewell Concert."
A musical nexus emerged in the London borough of Camden (near my home), at a disused, Victorian-era railway building known as the Roundhouse.
The first "happening" there is depicted in the "Rock 'n' Roll Guide to Camden": "Despite the fact that the Roundhouse was cold, wet, filthy with minimal lighting, a rickety balcony and only two toilets, the event was a big success. Someone made a giant jelly, molded in a bath tub, but Pink Floyd's van ran into it while they were setting up their gear. Prizes were awarded for the shortest or barest fancy dress costumes - the winner was Marianne Faithful, in a highly unconventional nun's habit, but Paul McCartney, who went as an Arab in white robes and headdress, left empty-handed."
Led Zeppelin played its first London gig at the Roundhouse, and in September of '68, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane flew over to blow our minds at two all-night concerts.
Many of England's rock elite attended: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and members of Cream. In a review in Rave magazine, Jim Morrison was quoted as saying: "They were one of the best audiences we've ever had. They were fantastic. We enjoyed playing at the Roundhouse more than any other date for years."
The British music magazine Q once ran a story on "The Best Gigs Ever," which included The Doors' Roundhouse show, Cream at Windsor, Pink Floyd and the Stones in Hyde Park and Led Zep at Bath's Festival Of Blues & Progressive Music in 1970 - all shows I attended.
But probably the most memorable show at the Roundhouse saw Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Cream in a musical battle of the super bands. That was the night I met Jimi backstage, and ended up assisting German artist Gustav Metzger with his liquid crystal light show.
Metzger was the auto-destructive artist who had inspired The Who's stage mayhem. They were known for their explosive sets, where Pete Townshend would smash his guitar and Keith Moon would destroy his drums.
In an interview Metzger explained: "I gave a lecture at Ealing Art College which Pete attended (and I later taught social studies). I showed 50 slides, some of them very sensational and all about destruction. One showed a Japanese student breaking through paper. The movement of his hands was similar to the one that Pete made when smashing his guitar."
Another fun night, The Who and The Move at the Roundhouse. The Move's act included demolishing TV sets with firemen's axes. When the musicians also began chain sawing a vintage Cadillac, they almost incited a riot, which supposedly alarmed The Who.
Summertime during these blissful, flower-power days meant thousands of us would descend on London's Hyde Park to hear leading bands perform free concerts. Among the most legendary - Eric Clapton hooked up with Steve Winwood after Cream's demise to form the supergroup Blind Faith, who made their debut in the park in 1969 before 100,000 fans.
Other great Hyde Park shows included Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull in 1968, with Floyd closing the set with tracks from its new "A Saucerful of Secrets" album; and Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After and Fairport Convention the same summer.
On July 5,1969, the Rolling Stones played a free concert in the park that attracted the largest crowd ever assembled at a U.K. show, around half a million fans.
Mick Jagger had been inspired to play the park gig after attending the Blind Faith gig. The sudden death of former Stones' guitarist Brian Jones on July 3 almost halted the concert, which was transformed into a memorial, with Jagger reading a Shelley poem and releasing hundreds of butterflies.
One of the U.K.'s daily newspapers hailed it as "a major event in English social history."
The concert marked the first time classics like "Midnight Rambler," "Honky Tonk Women" and "Street Fighting Man" were played live; and it featured the longest ever version of "Sympathy for the Devil," 19 minutes, with the Stones joined by a dozen African drummers and a spear-brandishing tribesman who danced with Mick. It also marked the debut of their new guitarist, Mick Taylor.
Although we all happily grooved to their performance, years later Taylor told British Guitar magazine: "I just couldn't believe how bad they sounded (at his first pre-Hyde Park rehearsal). Their timing was awful. They sounded like a typical bunch of guys in a garage, playing out of tune and too loudly."
And Keith Richards later observed, "Hyde Park was one of the most abysmal shows we've ever done, but it was also one of the most important."
The ancient English town of Glastonbury has long been associated with one of the greatest annual rock festivals in Europe. Back in 1970, the fest was held close by in the village of Shepton Mallet. We hitched down to this idyllic country setting to hear Led Zeppelin, Santana, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, John Mayall, the Mothers of Invention, The Byrds, Canned Heat, Steppenwolf, Donovan and Johnny Winter. Of course it rained, resulting in the Moody Blues canceling due to the soggy stage and the Airplane ending its set early.
Like at Woodstock, country lanes leading to the site were blocked by cars, tents were waterlogged, bands arrived late and schedules collapsed, leading to Pink Floyd (who performed with a brass band and choir) beginning its set at a bleary 3 a.m. and the last act, Dr John, arriving on stage at dawn on Monday morning. Led Zep, by the way, played for three hours with five encores, in a performance considered by critics and band members as one of the most important of their career.
Never saw the Beatles live, but I did meet Ringo and I once marched in a demonstration led by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
In 1971, Ringo took a fancy to designing and mounted a steel furniture exhibition at Liberty's, one of London's most fashionable stores. The show included such utilitarian artifacts as a Rolls Royce grill table.
Curious, we hopped on a bus to the Regent Street shop, and just as we began wandering around, in walked the famous drummer, trailed by a film crew. Seizing the moment, introductions were made and we chatted for a bit, with Ringo assuring that his band mates were never going to reform.
The same year, a hippie magazine called Oz was busted for obscenity. Many were outraged by the trumped up charges (which were later dismissed) and a few hundred of us embarked on an anti-censorship demonstration through central London. As we chanted away, John and Yoko emerged from a side street and subsequently led the demo.
Many years later it was fun to reminisce about that day with Yoko when she visited Maui to mount an exhibition of her husband's art. And after regaling me with stories of their life together, Yoko let me hear a tape of unreleased songs by John, including "Free as a Bird," which later showed up on the Beatles' "Anthology" series.