The People Leave Hyde Park Slowly: An interview by Bob Greenfield

LONDON- Rain is sloshing down all the streets and windows, and when Bob Hite of Canned Heat wakes up in his hotel room in Lancaster Gate, all he can say is, “Ooooh, you can’t even do anything for free anymore.”

It’s Saturday morning. The TV is showing a documentary about the care and feeding of trout fingerlings in New Zealand. English rain is coming down and it looks like the second free concert of the summer in Hyde Park is washed out and floating upstream, like the trout.

Bob Hite, gentle pooh bear, is totally absorbed in the TV. Al Wilson, who wrote and sang, “Goin’ Up The Country” and “On The Road Again” is dead less than a week. When he finally brings himself to speak about it, Bob Hite’s voice is very soft and L.A., full of Southern California wonder at the astonishing sadness of it all.

“As a kid, Alan was…well, his father’s a radio ham and he tried to get him into that, no good, then stamp collecting. Same thing…Alan’d go off to his room and stay there, playin’ records and readin’ books.

“I first met him in ’65 and he was…weird. Funky, funky…not takin’ care of himself, his clothes of his hair. My mother couldn’t believe him when I brought him to the house. Al never put it on…he was just like that.

“Like, he’d learned how to drive a car. We’d go into a restaurant, I’d ask him what he wanted first and then order because if there was something new on the menu it would totally hang him up.”

“Our band is more like a family than anything else, and Al was living with me and my wife. He started comin’ around real nice until six months ago. Then he stopped rappin’ and laughin’. Everything got him uptight, the smog in L.A., what people were doing to the redwoods…Everything. Right inside him. He said to me, ‘I don’t know what my problems are anymore. It’s a drag gettin’ up every day.’

“One of his problems was women. I saw him call up a groupie invite her to a concert and be with him all night. Then she split to go with another guy when they got back to the hotel. He cried…real tears, over a groupie. So I know chicks were a big thing for him…but he never dug that if you brush your teeth there’s no bad breath and girls dig that.

“One night he walked out of the Topanga Corral with a half pint of gin. He’d stashed fifty reds somewhere and he figured he’d do it that way. But someone’d stolen the reds. The next day he wrecked his van, but with not a scratch on himself. He was so disappointed.”

“He went into the hospital and did a little recordin’ with us. He came on tour and quit the band in South Carolina to go the woods. He came back and said that was only an escape, could he be back with us? We said sure, and he was going to make the European tour.

“Two days before we left I told him to make sure his clothes were washed for the tour. Then he disappeared, which wasn’t unusual. Nobody knew where. We looked and looked…our plane was leaving…we took it without him. In Berlin they told us they’d found him dead on the hill, with four reds on him. …He had so much trouble straightening it out. Maybe he was in the wrong business, too. He tried three times. He finally made it.”

Bob Hite finishes, managing not to cry. The free concert is on, he is told, and he smiles.

In Hyde Park, Sal Valentino, ex-Beau Brummel, is watching like a loving father as the Hog Farm band, Stone Ground, gets it on. Valentino isn’t doing much, singing now and then, throwing in a rhythm lick on guitar, watching as his children pour off energy into the gray-green mist. Five British Angels are dancing right down front. A chick in a long purple sweater with a freckled face shuts her eyes, banging a tambourine, getting off.

About 4000 people have come through the freezing rain and gusting wind and are soggily sorted in a wet semi-circle before the stage.

The wind and rain come up strong during a set by Michael Chapman, a British folk singer. His black felt slouch hat blows off and is deposited in the wet. Chapman does not bother to pick it up, changing “Aviator” into “Hey Jude” and back again.

General Waste More Land in pseudo-Air Force blue and gray addresses the crowd in a red plastic airplane on the crown of his peaked hat. “War has been declared stupid,” he informs them, “and Nixon is just another pretty face.”

Eric Burdon is announced to a huge roar. One of their own, returning, with his new group, War. During the set, the crowd pushes forward to the stage enveloping the Angel security guards. The rain stops.

And Burdon works, ripping his white pants neatly down the middle, bringing his mother out on stage during “Spill the Wine” and kissing her, talking dirty and just being generally funky. War makes big heavy music. Afro-blue: “Mother Earth,” “Tobacco Road,” “Paint It Black,” and “Take Me Baby,” a number they used to start and end the set with.

Wavy Gravy is on stage afterwards, in a jingle jester’s hat and coveralls, a jacket with a rainbow and star on the back. “Y’all wanna get high?” he asks. “Now, cops follow us, the Hog Farm, around a lot and we run outa dope too y’know. So we have this thing we call a ‘Gong Bong.’ Gong Bong, breathe in, out, in, out, fourteen times. Let it out with a scream—unnnnh. You’re stoned. If it doesn’t work, you can kick the shit out of me and smoke it…”

John Sebastian follows. “You people live here all the time?” he says, looking out at a soupbowl of brollies and flags, “FAR OUT!” The crowd, Sebastian, serenading each other in the cold.

Back to the days of old with “Johnny B. Goode.” On his final song, “Darlin’ Be Home Soon,” an antique sun comes out, etching the scene in gold.

Canned Heat arrive to finish it off. The crowd is up and ready. “When’s Al’s funeral?” someone calls out. “Do ‘Goin Up The Country.’” Someone else shouts.

“Darlin,’ couldn’t possibly do that,” Bob Hite says, “Al’s funeral was on Friday—his ashes were scattered under the redwoods. It’s what he wanted. We can’t believe it’s real yet. All we can do is make music…”

They do, pumping furiously, Bob Hite growing redfaced, until the power is pulled on the “Boogie.” The amps gone, everyone laughs anyway. Bob Hite hugs a friend.

People leave slowly. On the subway going home, they sit in the aisles and play games with strangers, laughing at everything.

Just give the English a little adversity. They react like they invented California.

                By Bob Greenfield, 1970

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