Interview by John Strausbaugh & George Tabb
Besides, at 65, Giorgio Gomelsky can still party your ass under the table, son.
He's no household name to music consumers, but to music industry insiders he's long been a legend. He was effectively the Rolling Stones' first manager, he showed the young Beatles around London, he produced the Yardbirds, put the Animals onstage with Sonny Boy Williamson, put Soft Machine in St.-Tropez and partied with everybody. In the early 1970s he was a major force behind the European art-rock scene; after coming to New York in the late 70s, he supported the No Wave scene, pre-Knitting Factory downtown music and 80s punk. More recently he's been involved in saving the Amiga computer from bungling corporate owners, documenting rock oral histories for his cable show esc = shift = cntrl and developing new ideas for a netcast channel.
We met with Gomelsky for a series of long afternoon chats in his lair up the narrow stairs above the Green Door. Bottles of red wine uncorked, Giorgio feeding us his homemade minestrone. In the front room, which he keeps dark, he sits at a console of computer, tv and video editing screens, smoking thin cigarettes, reminiscing in his Russian-French-Italian accent. The phone rings constantly, always some local rocker or other wanting to speak with him about some project he's helping with.
Gomelsky is an international man. He was born in then-Soviet Georgia as his father, a surgeon and medical researcher, was fleeing Stalin's mad crackdown on the professional classes. His mother was a French-speaking milliner from Monte Carlo. He grew up in Italy and Switzerland, hitchhiked all over as a kid, has spent significant years living in England, France and the U.S., speaks all the relevant languages. "I don't have a homeland," he says. "I guess in a way jazz became my homeland...
"I'm a jazz and blues fan from way back, since I was 10-11 years old, which, since I was born in 1934, puts you back toward the end of World War II," he says. "The Germans had been marching up and down the town in Northern Italy where we had temporarily ended up on our way to Switzerland. My dad, a doctor and a dedicated antifascist from way back, was on their blacklist, and we had to duck and dive."
His first memory of jazz is of finding a stack of American records in an attic and hearing songs like "Caravan" and "Take the A Train" and "a Louis Jordan record, something about chickens. We played those again and again and again."
By the end of the war the family had reached Switzerland, where he got hooked on the late-night jazz and bebop programs on Armed Forces Network (AFN) radio. He started an adolescents' "jazz society" at "the Benedictine monks' school I went to for a while. Great teachers, the Benedictine monks, but you want to talk to them about jazz? Forget it. We were also practicing playing boogie-woogie stuff. They had this great organ in the church, and three of us...would sneak into the church at night when the monks were asleep. One was pumping [the organ], one was playing the left hand part and the other the melody." He sings a snatch of boogie-woogie.
Wanting to learn theater against his father's wishes, the precocious jazzbo left home a month before his 13th birthday and hitchhiked his way around Europe, finding the arty jazz scene and existentialists' cafes everywhere he went. At "14 or 15" he started writing reviews for an Italian jazz magazine and organizing jam sessions. He was also becoming interested in filmmaking.
Returning to school and Switzerland, "Around 1953 I apprenticed at a theater in Zurich and played drums with a Dixieland band, which I hated, but it was the only style of music around at the time and a good excuse for practicing drums. As the summer approached a bunch of us decided to try and put on an open-air jazz festival in the streets of the city, and off we went to ask the city elders for permission. They gave us the most amazing runaround, so one Sunday in May, we went down the Bahnhofstrasse [the main drag], where all traffic was barred and the burghers and their families went window-shopping, gazing at gold watches, silks, jewelry and other such Swiss luxuries, and on the precise stroke of 4, about 200 of us knelt in the middle of the street, took our pants down and showed our asses to the sky. You call it 'mooning' here, I believe. Well, next day it was in the papers?and guess what, we got our permits. However, the day of the festival it pissed with rain like it hadn't done in 50 years. Nevertheless, it was a great success, and I think the 'ZuriFest' is still going."
His parents had divorced, and his mother had moved to London, where she worked for "the last of the great Parisian hat designers," making hats for the royal family and nobles, "those big hats they always wore when going to the horse races." He learned English reading the copies of Melody Maker she sent to him every week, and moved himself to London in 1955. "I don't really speak English, but I can read it and understand it. But of course, my mum is there and she soon sorted me out."
At a club called the Jazz Centre he met Harold Pendleton. "He later became the owner of the famous Marquee, and he founded the National Jazz and Blues Festival in Richmond, and later the Reading Festival, which is still going now." The London clubs were full of what the English called "trad jazz, which really meant some form of early New Orleans or Dixieland music." Chris Barber (who, with Van Morrison and Lonnie Donegan, has just put out a very retro CD called The Skiffle Sessions) was a leading bandleader.
"So there is the beginning of a scene, where you might even be able to make your living at either writing about jazz or promoting jazz or playing it," Gomelsky recalls. "And this is why I went there. I saw it as an awakening of some kind after what that country went through in World War II. I mean, when I got to London, pubs were closing at 9:30?forget it! This fog and smog, it was like Jack the Ripper country. You couldn't see three feet in front of you. They were heating their houses with coal, that's why they had the smog...
"There was no nightlife to speak of, everything was gray and depressed. They had won the war and lost the peace, so to speak. I was used to being up all night in cafes and clubs on the continent, discussing the future of humanity and scheming away at stirring things up. This bohemian culture just didn't exist in London."
Gomelsky got a Greek friend to import an Italian espresso machine, "So now we have this FAEMA coffee machine, in a little place, the Olympic Coffee Bar, around the corner from King's Road, near Sloane Square. King's Road goes through Chelsea in London, and Chelsea was always the artists' district. But at that time it was all dead. There was the old Artists' Club, but it was almost in ruins. But we had a coffee bar, three tables, nine chairs, and no legislation governing this kind of establishment. So now after the pubs close we go to the coffee bar, and drink coffee all night.
"Soon, all the young heads with something to say showed up. People like Mary Quant, who was still unknown, and her boyfriend Alexander Plunkett-Green. She went on to invent the miniskirt, and he started the modern restaurants on King's Road, beginning the whole revolution that led to Swinging London. There were a bunch of the people like this. A friend of mine and I rented an old painter's studio?funnily enough in Edith Grove, where later Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got their infamous pad?a big, very cool place, and I organized jam sessions, and some young but impoverished aristos played Chemin de Fer?'Chemmy' they called it?you know, illegal gambling parties...
"Finally, and I'm jumping a bit here, the Greater London Council changed the licensing laws, so if you were serving food in a place you could go on drinking until 3 a.m. That was the beginning of the glorious and famous London clubs of the 60s. It started with Blaises, then the Cromwellian, the Scotch of St James, the Bag O'Nails, and ended up with the Speakeasy, the best of them all." (Gomelsky gets an acknowledgment in a great reference book about the London clubs, Tony Bacon's London Live, published in the U.S. by Miller Freeman Books in 1999.)
"And all through this," he goes on, "new plays and playwrights appeared, the Free Cinema movement emerged, the music scene flourished. London was truly swinging now!"
In the early 60s, London's jazz club scene, mostly in Soho and the West End, began slowly to give up some nights to bands playing British versions of the blues, r&b and skiffle (the peculiarly British amalgamation of acoustic blues, hootenanny folk and Chicago "rent party" music that became very big in England?the Beatles started as a skiffle band, the Quarrymen). Local blues bands could find work in the back rooms of London pubs. Guitarist Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies on harmonica formed Blues Incorporated, which over the years included pre-Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, calling himself Elmo Lewis after the blues legend Elmo James, honed their skills playing as "the interval band" between Korner's sets (while Korner and his band were up in the front of the pub catching a few pints). Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker also played with Korner.
"Harold Pendleton agreed to give Korner and Davies a Thursday-night residency at the Marquee, and within weeks it became the hot spot in London. Matter of fact, we were lucky, because there was a big sex scandal going on at the time in London involving Secretary of State for War John Profumo, and on the second week, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, the two girls involved in the scandal, showed up with their entourage of paparazzi, and next day the club was in the papers! Great publicity! I mean, there's like 40 of us blues freaks in a place that holds 500, and in the middle of the evening these two very hot girls show up and pffft!" He makes a rocket sound. "Now the Marquee?and the pub around the corner where everybody went between sets to get tanked up, because the club had no booze license?becomes the meeting place of all the blues fans in the land.
"It's there I met Brian Jones for the first time," he recalls, in 1962. "He was 20 and just down from Cheltenham, which is a spa city, very genteel, a bit snob, like all such places."
Pendleton, a traditionalist, was reluctant to push this new blues thing, so Gomelsky found "dying jazz venues" around Central London where he could plug in r&b nights.
"Among other places, I find this one around the corner from Picadilly Circus. Until a few months before it had been the Picadilly Jazz Club... I took it over and started putting on r&b shows on Friday nights. One of them was the very first small-scale but very comprehensive London R&B Festival, which featured all the five or six exponents of the style, including, of course, Blues Incorporated and the Rollin' Stones [as they called themselves at first]. Harold hears about this and feels I'm trying to steal his thunder, which of course is not true, but to prove my point that r&b would find its audience no matter where, I decided to start another venue as far away from the Marquee and Central London as possible. Some young friends of mine, the Rustics, were running a venue at the back of the Station Hotel in Richmond, the very last stop on the District Subway line, 15 miles from the West End, so I go down there to have a peek.
"I'm down there checking it out and I see they have this nice room in the back of the pub with phony palm trees, a stage with wooden, cutout music quavers on the back wall and a small white grand piano. The place held about 100, 150 people at most, but I thought the odd juxtaposition would be hilarious?Palm Court Blues Orchestra! 'Palm Courts' were big in England way back?dancing and beer, pretending to be on a beach on some tropical island."
Only Sunday nights were available, but he took it. The first group he booked was the Dave Hunt R&B Band, who'd also play at the Picadilly. Ray Davies was in the band. When they proved unreliable, Giorgio went looking for a replacement.
"At the Marquee and in the music pubs, Brian Jones had been bending my ear constantly, which I didn't mind because I was on his side anyway," Gomelsky says. "He used to say to me?" He affects Jones' whispery lisp. "'Giorgio, Giorgio, you gotta come hear my band. Thith ith the betht blueth band in the land. Weally. Weally. Why are you not coming?'" When Hunt didn't show one Sunday night, Gomelsky called the Stones' piano player Ian Stewart, "who worked at Imperial Chemical Industries, one of the biggest UK corporations, and was the only one you could reach on the phone. I told him the gig was theirs."
It was Stuart and Jones who'd started the band. "Brian was actually a very good instrumentalist. His mum was a musician and he had gotten piano and violin lessons early in his childhood. He had a very open mind to music. He listened to jazz. Except for Charlie, a bebop fan, none of the others did. Jagger had no idea about jazz. Neither did Keith. Years later, I remember a friend of mine telling me he got the job of accompanying Mick Jagger into every jazz record store in London to buy jazz records. He wanted to educate himself."
The Stones had just "gotten themselves thrown out of the Marquee by Cyril Davies, a blues 'purist' who thought their versions of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were rock 'n' roll-infected, and they badly needed a regular gig."
On their first Sunday night in Richmond, all of three people showed up. "I had completely goofed printing the fliers and the sign outside the pub. I couldn't draw?or spell," Gomelsky chuckles, and the sign he wrote for outside the pub announced Sunday night, 7:30 pm? Rhythm and Bulse.
"'Rhythm & Bulse,'" he laughs. "No wonder no one showed up, right? Not that it would have made a difference had I spelled it properly. The audience just wasn't there yet. But these three guys who showed up, I would never forget them. Actually most of them joined the music business. One, Paul Williams, became a blues singer, another, Little H, a famous roadie who worked for Jimi Hendrix and later died in the crash with Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the third started his own venue somewhere and became an agent. They were cool guys.
"So Brian says, 'Giorgio, there'th sikth of us, and there'th three of them. Do you think it'th worthwhile? Thould we play?' I said, 'Brian, how many people do you think can fit in here? A hundred? Okay, well then play as if there were 100 people in here.' And they did. And that was one of the reasons I rarely went to see the Stones in later times, because in some ways, that was like the best show they ever did. To three people."
Within weeks, lines were forming outside the pub for the regular Sunday night Stones gigs at Gomelsky's "Crawdaddy Club," as he'd dubbed it. He remembers packed houses of reticent young Brits, just standing and gawking at the band, afraid to dance. "There were a few tables in the joint, so I convinced my friend and assistant Hamish Grimes to get on one of the tables so everyone could see him and start waving his arms about while shouting, 'Yeah! Yeah!' and whistling as loudly as he could. There wasn't anything else you could do, the place was so crammed. So, during the last number of the first set, an extended version of a Bo Diddley song, 'Pretty Thing' I think, Hamish gets up there and starts waving away." He windmills his arms over his head. "Everybody looks up and in a split-second they catch on and 200 pair of arms were undulating like crazy! Man, that was something."
A young reporter named Barry May, from the small and conservative Richmond and Twickenham Times, wrote a full-page rave of the show:
A musical magnet is drawing the jazz beatniks to Richmond. The attraction is the Crawdaddy Club at the Station Hotel, the first of its kind in an area of flourishing modern and traditional jazz haunts. R & B is replacing traddy-pop. The deep earthy sound is typical of the best R & B, and gives all who hear it an irresistible urge to stand up and move... A patch of light from the entrance doors catches the sweating dancers and those who are slumped on the floor, the long hair, suede jackets, gaucho trousers and Chelsea boots...
To cajole the London press out to Richmond on a Sunday night, Gomelsky let it be known that he was filming the wild, "ritualistic" behavior of the Stones crowds, and had put the band in a small studio to record two tracks for it, a Bo Diddley and a Jimmy Reed song. (The Stones were still a cover, or "tribute," band.) Peter Jones of The Record Mirror sent a reporter; Patrick Doncaster, "a drinking pal and old 'jazzer,' who played very fair Dixieland trombone in a semipro band of journalists and was the entertainment editor of the awesome Daily Mirror [the biggest national daily]," came by himself and wrote a rave that had much to do with suddenly vaulting the Stones to national attention:
...In the half darkness, the guitars and drums twang and bang. Pulsating R&B. Shoulder to shoulder on the floor are 500 youngsters in black leather and sweaters. You could boil an egg in the atmosphere. Heads shake violently, and feet stamp in tribal style with hands above heads, clapped in rhythm. Shaking figures above the rest, held aloft by their colleagues, thrashing and yelling, like a revivalist meeting in America's deep south...
Unfortunately, this was not the sort of attention the pub's owners wanted. On the same day that the Crawdaddy was invited to find a new home?April 22, 1963?Gomelsky "got news that my father had died in Switzerland. The next day I left for Switzerland. I thought I would be back in a few days, but my father had left behind many instructions regarding his legacy and I had to take care of that, and it took three weeks.
"Luckily I had a cool girlfriend at the time, Enid Tidey, who knew the business. She was secretary to Denis Preston, who was the first independent record producer in England and had his own studio and label. So she and Hamish looked around, and with the help of Harold Pendleton found the perfect spot for the Crawdaddy to move to, not even half a mile away, on the grounds of the Richmond Athletic Association, where Harold had been putting on the Richmond Jazz Festival. There was this sports complex with a grandstand, and underneath the grandstand was a bar. So when I came back from Switzerland we had moved from the Station Hotel to this place. Here we could fit nearly 1000 people."
The Stones played there, and the Paramounts (who became Procol Harum), and the Muleskinners (who in part turned into the Small Faces), and the Moody Blues, and the Animals, who came down from Newcastle. Later that year Gomelsky convinced Pendleton to let him book the Stones into the third annual Richmond Jazz Festival, bringing the highly controversial r&b to the purists, much like Dylan at Newport. (Gomelsky would also produce his own festival, the first British Rhythm & Blues Festival, in Birmingham in 1964. Featuring the Yardbirds with Sonny Boy Williamson, the bill also included the Spencer Davis Rhythm & Blues Quartet?with Stevie Winwood, all of 15?and a Liverpool band called the Roadrunners, and Long John Baldry, with a uncredited vocal turn by one of Baldry's roadies, a youngster named Rod Stewart.)
Meanwhile, the Stones had met Andrew Loog Oldham. "While I was away in Switzerland, Peter Jones meets Andy Oldham," an ambitious young guy who'd done some publicity work for Brian Epstein and the Beatles. Gomelsky by this time had met the Beatles himself. He'd seen them, pre-fame, at the Top Ten in Hamburg.
"Oh, I liked them. They were a good, fluent band... I didn't know they were from Liverpool at first, but they didn't sound German. I was in Hamburg on a Chris Barber tour, so we said hello to them, talked a while."
They were still in their black-leather-jacket rock 'n' roll phase. "They were playing long hours, so they needed to know a lot of songs and covers. Later on...I was asking how they wrote all their original songs, John Lennon said, 'When you have to play five hours a night you get to know a lot of songs. We just pinched from here and there. You just arrange it so people don't know where you pinched it from. It's not a big science.'"
In his autobiography Stone Alone, Bill Wyman recorded that it was Giorgio who brought the Beatles to meet the still-unknown Stones:
Our link with the Beatles, which was always friendly, began on 14 April 1963... Giorgio was talking to the Beatles about making a film. He told them about us and invited them to visit our show in Richmond, only three miles away, later that night.
The room was packed and we were in good form, driven on by the Crawdaddy regulars that now formed our core audience. Soon after we began our first set, we were staggered to see the four Beatles standing and watching us. They were dressed identically in long leather overcoats. I became very nervous, and said to myself: "Shit, that's the Beatles!"
"After the Crawdaddy we went back to Edith Grove and stayed up till the wee hours talking about music," Gomelsky adds. "Then they invited us to go to the Royal Albert Hall [four days later, on April 18]. The BBC every year had this concert the light entertainment music department was putting on. The Beatles were just hitting at the time. [They topped a bill of 15 acts.] We [Brian, Keith, Mick and Giorgio] went there and met them again, and at the end of the evening, Brian Jones and me are helping Neal and Malcolm, the Beatles' roadies, great guys, to carry equipment out of the artists' entrance, and there's this bunch of girls. They start grabbing Brian Jones, 'Oh can I have an autograph? Can I have an autograph?' And Brian was like, 'But I'm not a Beatle!' The girls hadn't been inside, so they didn't know. He had the long hair, looked like a pop star. I told him to sign anyway, and he did. As we're walking down the steps of the Albert Hall to go to my apartment not far from there, Brian looks at me and says"?he does the Jones lisp, with fervid intensity?"'Giorgio, Giorgio, that'th what I want. That'th what I want!' And I said, 'Brian, you're going to have it. Don't worry about it. But when you get it you might not want it.' But I was wrong?he never got enough of it..."
It was Jones who brought in Oldham while Gomelsky was in Switzerland a few weeks after that.
"The first thing I did when I came back, I showed, not the rushes but a rough cut of the first part of film I had shot before leaving. I wanted it to be a 20-minute thing. This was up to like eight or nine minutes. And Brian Jones brings this guy to the screening. He introduces me to him and says, 'This is Andrew. We went to school together and he's visiting me.' So Brian?perfidious Brian as it turned out?manipulated the whole thing. Of course he never went to school with Andrew. Brian stabbed me..." Shortly thereafter, Gomelsky was informed that Oldham was the band's new manager. "Of course, I think Andrew offered him personally some money. I think that at some point later on, the other Stones found out that Brian was getting a cut above them. They didn't like that very much."
Both Wyman and Keith Richards would later say they felt bad about how they'd backdoored Gomelsky. Wyman wrote that "here was a fairly brutal example of how useful allies and kindred spirits were jettisoned when an act got a sniff of success. Giorgio was an enthusiast who had provided the Stones with an anchor when it was needed. Giorgio's contribution to our success has since been belittled. But while he may not have been right as our future manager, just chopping him out of the gang was insensitive, to put it mildly." Richards, interviewed in Rolling Stone in 1971, remembered that Oldham and his partner Eric Easton "fucked Giorgio because he had nothing on paper with us. They screwed him to get us a recording contract."
Asked what he did after Oldham stole the Stones from him, Gomelsky scoffs, "He didn't steal it, he bought it from Brian, cheap! Whatever. Well, I was choked and shocked, obviously. My friend Brian deceived me. Years later I had it confirmed from Bill Wyman that Brian had manipulated the situation. One of the reasons he had put forward to the others was that they shouldn't trust a 'foreigner' like me to manage their affairs. Talking about Brit xenophobia! The other reason? Eric Easton [an older showbiz type, Oldham's partner and mentor] gave him the money to have a custom-made suit."
And what of that film he'd made of the Stones? It "got lost," Gomelsky says. "Nobody knows where it is. It would be worth a fortune today. Perhaps Mick Jagger has it and he's waiting for me to pass away."
Giorgio has another story he can tell about the Beatles. Peter Clayton had written for Jazz Beat and done liner notes for Decca in the 60s. By the 70s he was a columnist with London's Sunday Telegraph, an establishment paper. In 1971 he wrote a funny "confession," "How I Didn't Join the Beatles," that began:
Normally I keep quiet about how I didn't make a film with the Beatles in 1963...
The near miss began when a man named Giorgio summoned me to his flat near the West London Air Terminal... [On arrival] I went into a living room where four young men were sitting around eating omelettes off their laps. I suppose I should remember some of those tart witticisms which became such a feature of Beatles Press conferences, but all I can recall are the omelettes, each in the centre of a big plate, like a stranded yellow fish, and the Beatles' pale faces and grey suits and prolific hair (by today's standards, of course, they were short-haired; you could see their ears.)
Giorgio's idea was to make a day-in-the-life film about the band. "They are fabulous," Clayton remembered him enthusing. "So hip. Part of a new culture; they are going to be enormous and we are going to write a film for them." He and Clayton, with the Beatles' help, did in fact produce "a detailed synopsis of a story which I'm still convinced would have worked," Clayton wrote, and "in April 1963, we were ready to make the first Beatles film. All that was needed was the approval of Brian Epstein..." But the Beatles' manager, whom Clayton recalls exhibited "a combination of shyness [and] profound suspicion of the ways of showbiz," "probably mistook Giorgio's explosive enthusiasm for just another attempt to stampede him into something," and their film never got made.
"Can you imagine sitting there with the four Beatles and inventing a funny, 'dadaistic' film, off the cuff?" Giorgio reminisces. "Apart from anything else, we had a great time. But Epstein didn't know his ass from his elbow in those early days. He came from Liverpool, the sticks really, compared to London?although he had wanted to become an actor, and even studied in London for a while, I think...
"A few weeks after our meetings, United Artists, which was run by hustling American producers who wanted a quick 'in' in the nascent London scene, and were ready, as usual, to fork out big money to buy themselves a lion's share, offers the Beatles a three-picture deal. There was no way we could compete with that?our budget was $20,000 and our esthetic approach well outside studio conventions. But in any case we didn't get the opportunity to even compete. Epstein, naively?and unethically, in my opinion?just gave them our treatment without ever informing us."
And that becomes A Hard Day's Night.
"A couple of years later Epstein wrote me a letter, which unfortunately I misplaced somewhere, in which he apologized. He said he didn't know, he was naive, blah blah."
After the Stones fiasco, Hamish Grimes took Gomelsky to hear a young band "rehearsing on top of a pub in East Sheen, near Richmond," he recalls. "As we're going up the stairs I hear [getting faster and louder] ta-ta-ta-ta TATATATA. Resting on a chord?later known as a 'power chord'?they're playing a sort of manic accelerando, and it caught my ear instantly. I go, 'Oh, oh, very interesting!' Open the door and there they are?the Yardbirds. The first thing I told them when the song finally stopped was: 'You got the job.'
"It was pre-Clapton; the guitarist was "Anthony 'Top' Topham, a 15-year-old kid. His dad didn't want him to become a professional musician at that stage. The others were around 17-18. I gave them the gig at the Crawdaddy."
Giorgio went on to work with them for a few years, producing their albums, managing, arranging their tours?which included opening for the Beatles.
"As I said, Eppy felt bad about the movie, so he gave me a lot of work for the Yardbirds. I remember him telling me he thought the Stones owed me a few too. For two years in a row we were on the Beatles Christmas Show, which took place for three weeks around Christmas in the biggest halls in London, like the Odeon in Hammersmith [3000 seats]. It was their way of paying back their fans. Two shows a day, 6 and 8 o'clock. The Yardbirds were second on the bill," which included bands like Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas and the Swinging Blue Jeans.
The Yardbirds also opened for the Beatles on a European tour.
"It was great. Epstein let us play as much as we liked. After shaky starts?the people had come to see the Beatles, after all?we used to get the audience really excited, because we did the rave-up Crawdaddy tricks on them. I remember in Paris at the Palais des Sports, a 20,000-seater, the boys got carried away a bit and the Beatles were backstage joking, 'Hey, it's our turn now. Will you get off?'"
Giorgio shows us a 1963 photo by Jeremy Fletcher of himself and an oddly preppie-looking Eric Clapton, who would've been 18 or 19 (born in 1945), standing with the British Home Secretary on his lawn. Why were they at the British Home Secretary's house?
"In Parliament he'd made a sweeping attack against youth culture," Gomelsky smiles. "So we decided to surprise him. We went outside his house in the suburbs of London and set up the Yardbirds, with a generator, and started playing really loud music. On a Sunday, when he was resting. He came out and talked to us. He's a lord now."
We ask about Clapton's crewcut and preppie outfit.
"Eric was always a Beau Brummell," Gomelsky replies. "An arbiter of fashion in his own way, a trendsetter. When hair was long, he cut it short, and when everybody's was short, he let it long. He was always doing the opposite. See the buttondown shirt? This was when he was into his Ivy League thing."
According to the legend, when the Yardbirds recorded "For Your Love" (written by Graham Gouldman, later of 10cc) in 1964, their pop-chart breakthrough, Clapton the blues purist considered it a sellout. Supposedly it's one of the reasons he quit the band. Gomelsky adds that he also didn't get along so well with bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, the band's "musical director," who "could be a little officious. He enjoyed the power a bit, I think." He goes on:
"Of course, doing 'For Your Love' was a break with pure blues. But I kept thinking, 'The Beatles opened up a vast opportunity for English artists, we can't afford to miss out here. Reaching a wider public is important?once we have access we can tell them about the blues and real music.' Everybody else that came from the blues was making pop records?the Stones, the Animals, Spencer Davis. We had gathered an audience, but we couldn't get past the radio. And in England, remember, there was only one radio station, with only like one pop program a week. Until [pirate] Radio Caroline came along and really changed everything. So we had to figure out a way of getting in there. We all had done blues songs as singles?the Stones had done 'Come On,' we had done 'Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl.' But we forgot that in England there wasn't really a blues audience that bought singles?they bought albums. By the way, that's why I recorded the Five Live Yardbirds album before they had a single hit record.
"And then there was the commercial music scene, as bad in the UK as in the U.S.?worse really, because of a lack of regional markets and independent labels, and radio producers controlling what and who went on the air. They were working hand in hand with the music publishers, and if they didn't have some kind of a financial interest in it, you wouldn't appear. So one day Ronnie Beck, who was a nice, young, pretty hip 'song plugger' for a major publisher, came with this song, 'For Your Love.' As soon as I heard it I said, ah, we could use harpsichord here, and on the demo there was a bongo drum and I said, oh, interesting. We'll do a pop song, but we'll inject some stuff in there that will indicate to people with ears that we're doing this a little bit tongue in cheek, but we're also doing it as an opportunity to reach a bigger audience and put in some experimental stuff. Which we did, and it worked. Same with sitar and tablas-like sounds on 'Heart full of Soul,' Gregorian chants on 'Still I'm Sad' and a jazzy walking bassline on 'Shape of Things.'"
Another piece of the legend is the Yardbirds' first U.S. tour. Gomelsky, searching for a gutsier recorded sound than you could get in England, set up the tour so that they could visit studios like Sam Phillips' Sun in Memphis, where they recorded "Train Kept A-Rolling."
"The first tour we did in America was with Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys. Our first show was in Pittsburgh and our equipment hadn't arrived. I said, 'Now we have to go around begging people to let us play on their instruments.' Chuck Berry wouldn't lend it to us. He wanted us to buy it from him. We ended up borrowing it from the Beach Boys. Jeff managed to blow an amp. Little Fender amp."
In 1967, with financing from Polydor and Deutsche Grammaphon, Gomelsky started a public relations and artists' management firm, Paragon, and his own record label, Marmalade, which put out, among other titles, John McLaughlin's first LP, Extrapolation. With the lavish backing of the Germans, it was a high-rolling time for Gomelsky. He had a studio built in the middle of the offices, where visiting artists like Otis Redding and the Doors could rehearse.
"We were also booking acts and doing p.r. for all the hip clubs in town. Monday nights at the Speakeasy was humor night, and we'd put on Goon Show, pre-Monty Python events where the actors were people like Brian Auger, Eric Burdon, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon?real pissers. It was the first late-night kind of scene, because the musicians were gigging and couldn't get there much before midnight... The other day I was interviewing Daevid Allen [original guitarist with Soft Machine, and founder of Gong, whom Giorgio produced] and he was telling me a story of how he was there, tripping on acid and falling about, hitting his head against the wall. He felt sick and went into the toilet, and there this guy taking a leak took pity on him, got him a glass of water, straightened him out. That guy was John Lennon...
"At Paragon I had 35 employees. Swinging... All these record business guys when they came to London wanted to have a good time, wanted to get laid. We had this collection of call girls. These girls were so good, after two days these guys were..." He mimes total exhaustion. "So we'd have the girls for the rest of the 'booking,' and they'd come to my office at 4 o'clock in the morning and do dances for us. Oh man, we had such great fun. My office was the after-hours 'club' after the Speakeasy closed. We'd sneak out just before the cleaning women showed up at 6 in the morning."
After two years, the Germans pulled the plug. Giorgio had a falling out with Polydor and moved to France at the end of 1969, never to return to London. In France he heard the art-rock band Magma and was so taken with them he had to get involved. As Magma's manager, Giorgio set up an ingenious, low-budget touring circuit of youth centers all around France, and was instrumental in bringing in other art bands like Henry Cow, Can and Amon Duul II.
"We started an agency, Rock Not Degenerated?Rock Pas Degeneré?and it became the number-one employer on the European progressive rock scene. It had to be done. Shake off the shackles of Anglo-Saxon domination. After three or four years, Magma ended up playing 60 concerts a year, to 2000, 3000 people...and selling 150,000 albums in France alone. We were able to buy our own truck, hire our own crew, lighting guy, sound guy. So we built a business, doing it ourselves."
He would also come to manage Gong, formed by former Soft Machine's Daevid Allen. Giorgio had first seen Soft Machine "I think in 1967, down in a cellar in Tottenham Court Road, the UFO Club, which was run by an exiled American, Joe Boyd," now head of Hannibal Records. "They were on a bill with a band called Tomorrow, with Steve Howe, the guitar player who ended up in Yes. So I go see them and it's very good, intelligent stuff... I thought this is a band that should just make albums. It was the beginning of the FM radio thing in America, and I'm thinking, let's get in there. So we make this album demo, not many takes, no overdub, straight, to convince Polydor to fork out the bread, but they were taking their time."
Giorgio got Soft Machine a sweetheart summer residency playing in a friend's club in St.-Tropez. When the rest of the band returned to the UK, Allen, an Australian, was not allowed back into England. He went to Paris and started Gong. Giorgio would later get Gong a three-album recording deal with Richard Branson's fledgling Virgin Records.
"I remember there was a guy in the studio going ping ping ping." He mimes a guy noodling on a keyboard. "They threw him out because we had paid for the time. It was the Tubular Bells guy, Mike Oldfield," he laughs.
In the mid-70s, still living in Paris, booking Magma and Gong and "not looking to get involved in the Anglo-Saxon music world anymore because it had gotten so commercial, so repetitive," Gomelsky made a deal with RCA to start a new label, Utopia Records, which he hoped would be "a kind of underground but worldwide underground label."
Utopia turned out to be short-lived?Gomelsky blames a New York partner?but negotiating its demise did bring him back to Manhattan, where he decided he wanted to live. "I was walking down the streets here, and everybody?you know, after living in England for 15 years, where everybody is so hoity-toity and 'Where are you from?' You're condemned according to your accent. Classified. I thought it's really very populist here. So I did a lot of walking. I had to wait forever between lawyer meetings... I fell in love with the city. That's how it happens. Just walking around. I remember I had Dutch clogs, wooden shoes, you know, and I ran them down till there was almost nothing left. Walked and walked and walked and walked and walked."
RCA offered him a handsome consulting contract to do some market research, and he was more or less living in New York by 1977. It wasn't long before he was involved in the local music scene, hanging at CBGB, where he started meeting musicians like Bill Laswell. With RCA's backing, he was living large again.
"I had a wonderful apartment on W. 16th St., luxury, crystal chandeliers in the bathroom even, fireplace in the bathroom even. I had $5000 a month, 20 years ago. Amazing. I didn't know what it was [when he cut the deal originally]. I thought it was [equivalent to] 5000 francs. Turned out to be 25,000 francs. At the time that was like luxury. You have no idea the parties we had, the girls, amazing."
The RCA contract eventually ended, and "I had a big falling out with my landlord at 21 W. 16th St. there. [The landlord lived there] and being in the music business we were up till 2, 3 in the morning, and he couldn't get to sleep. I said, 'This is ridiculous. We gotta find a place where we can make some noise.' And I walked and walked and found this place. Early '78."
It had been a fashion display outfit, with mannequins on low platforms that still line the walls. With Gomelsky now living on the third floor, it became a music center and unofficial rock club. Untold numbers of New York bands have rehearsed and recorded, performed and partied there over the years. In the 80s it was known as the Plugg Club, with a logo designed by Punk magazine's John Holmstrom; as a launchpad for avantist-downtown-No Wave musics, it was a precursor to and incubator for later spaces like the Knitting Factory. The first Green Door parties were thrown there in the late 80s as an alternative to the club scene by a teenage rocker, Jesse Malin, who'd go on to found the band D Generation; the last Green Door party was just a month ago.
Laswell lived there for a time, and old friends like Nico and French prog-rock entrepreneur Jean Karakos (BYG, Celluloid Records) would sleep on the floor when visiting New York. For a while the ground floor was occupied by an s&m club called Paddles; a whole generation of New York rockers has fond memories of filing past customers who were being whipped and nipple-clamped as the musicians headed upstairs to meet with Giorgio and hatch some scheme like Wonka Tonka Mondays, the local band showcases Gomelsky used to organize at Tramps. To this day, you can't go visit Giorgio when there's not some young rock band or lone guitarist or drummer practicing down in the basement or in the dark, narrow ground-floor hall, which he rents out for rehearsals.
In 1978, Gomelsky produced the avant-rock Zu New Music Manifestival at the Entermedia Theater on 2nd Ave. "My idea was to take a sort of progressive European approach to music. The Magma approach, Gong, which people didn't really know about here. My idea was to bring that here, and find what the avant-garde thing was here...
"I did the organizing in like three weeks flat... It was funny, when I went to meet the guys who run the theater, they had a room in a kind of apartment house next door. I'm playing them the Gong records. 'Well, what do you want to do, boy?' 'This is the music I'm into.' I'm trying to spiel them, you know. And the door opens and this face comes in and says, 'Oh, I know this music! That's Gong.' It was Philip Glass. Philip had worked with Gong in Paris...
"I remember Christgau said he couldn't come because it was during the World Series. I wanted the critics to do a forum and talk about music and rock 'n' roll. And he said, 'Giorgio, you don't understand. In October you won't get me there.' He came in the end, and he was a disaster."
The following year, Gomelsky threw 24 musicians into a schoolbus and took Zu on an exhausting three-month tour across the U.S. "The idea was to plant the seeds for an alternative circuit. But little did I know how huge this country is, and the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Guys in college radio playing the same music living 50 miles apart didn't know each other. What kind of a network can you do when the guys living next door to each other don't even know each other? And you had to go 200, 300 miles before you'd meet a sympathetic ear. It's too huge."
An optimist and confessed utopian, Gomelsky pursues the future with a restlessness that could tax younger minds. From starting as a neophyte in 1987, he became a well-known "activist" for the Amiga, the multimedia computer with an arty users group?including Warhol, Blondie's Chris Stein and Holmstrom?more devoted and long-suffering than Mac's. Gomelsky has used his to make award-winning short videos. From the early 90s until last year, as Amiga was bobbled from Commodore to Gateway, he was arguing that users should invest in it as a group and develop a kind of anarcho-syndicalist ownership model. That never happened, of course, but users are cheered that at the end of 1999 Gateway sold the rights to a consortium of developers who are much closer in spirit to the grassroots "Amigans" (as they call themselves).
Lately he's been the driving intelligence behind the May 7 "Rock in New York: The Sounds & The Stories," the evening of storytelling and music at Bowery Ballroom sponsored by New York Press (see ad in Section Two, page 47). It's a natural by-product of his cable show, where he's been interviewing important but not always celebrated music insiders like John Sinclair, Marty Thau and Jim Fouratt. He plans to videotape "Rock in New York" for netcasting on a Web channel that's still a work in progress.
"Ever since I got into computers I thought that the Internet would provide, not unlike the printing press in 1452, a formidable means to spread knowledge and getting information from many different sources," he says. "However, unlike printing?or any subsequent mass media, for centuries in the hands of a few with their own agendas?the Net allows for a kind of democratization of the process. The merchant class with their infinite?and to me incomprehensible?greed is working very hard to gain control of all production and distribution mechanisms, just as it did before, and it will probably succeed to a great extent. But the horse has bolted and is out of the stable. The technology has gotten very affordable and allows for alternatives to exist. Just look at how computers are making production of music and video accessible. In a civilization where art has been forced into serving the powers that be, whether religious, economic or political, this is an unprecedented opportunity to finally escape ideological and commercial censorship."