Monday, June 1, 2015

Secret Agent Man

While I was traveling, I often felt a bit like a double agent. Inside I could be feeling like a groupie or hanger-on, but outside I was being viewed as a Rock and Roll star. The line became a little blurred sometimes, like the time I met Janis Joplin, where it was all I could do to not come off like a gushing little teeny-bopper. Many times, though, I would waltz onto the back of the stage and nod, as coolly as possible, to someone like the drummer of a group such as Santana, and make connections by being more of a peer than a fan.

More than once we got a chance to jam with big stars, like Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, Buddy Miles, Duane Allman and other traveling musicians of the time, when we were on the road. If we were staying in our home-base of L.A., waiting for the next tour to begin, we would sometimes end up getting together with other musicians at their homes or rehearsal studios, clubs in town or at Columbia studios, where we did most of our recording. There was never a shortage of players or road people to hang around with, jam with, drink or smoke with or engage in other diversions.

Speaking of diversions, I once had an L.A. studio musician ask me if we were freaks. Though he was a little sinister looking, with dark eyes, long black hair and a goatee, I just guessed that he was asking if we partied or something. When I answered that we were, he said, "We're gonna whip this chick down in Studio B at Columbia tonight and get it on film and tape, if you want to come by." I think he saw the shock on our faces, much as we tried to hide it, when he added, "It's cool; she's into it." I don't remember for sure about the other guys, but I took a pass.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Meeting Janice

While I was on the road, I was still the star-struck kid. Even though we had a hit record and were hearing ourselves on the radio on a daily basis and signing autographs regularly, I wasn’t so impressed with myself that I couldn’t get excited with seeing a rock star in person; especially someone with the renown of Janis Joplin. As an aside, I should mention that many of my experiences from those days have been hidden in the recesses of my memory and rarely spoken of, since I always fear that someone will take me for a pathological liar. But, on to the tale.

At Sicks Stadium, in Seattle, we were to play a festival that included name acts like Janis, The Youngbloods, The Allman Brothers and more. I had heard through the grapevine that Janis was resting in her trailer, which was no surprise since we were all pretty worn out from the road in those days. After watching one of the guitarists from the Youngbloods (of the hit song “Get Together”) cut the old strings off his guitar in a way that made me wince, and start to restring it, I took a little walk around the park. That was when I saw that flaming star. It was almost a magical moment for me.

Janis was dressed head to foot in an expandable knit purple outfit, with matching hat and feather boa; pretty much just how you’d expect her to look. I was nearly breathless. Trying to hide my excitement (and act cool, I suppose), I approached her until I got close enough not to totally invade her space and waited for her to look my way. She turned, smiling, and I immediately blurted out something like, “Janis, you don’t know me but I’m Kenny from PG&E and I have been a fan of yours long before I got on the road with them.”

She was so gracious. She started chatting with me like an old friend. She asked if I had heard the ‘Full Tilt Boogie Band’, which had recently replaced Big Brother as her backup band. I admitted I hadn’t. At that point she began praising them and told me to be sure to stay and hear them play that evening at the concert.

I noticed that she was very animated, and not high or drunk as I had expected. She almost sparkled. Nevertheless, she was periodically swigging off of what appeared to be a pint bottle of something from a brown paper sack. Trying to keep the conversation going, I asked her what was in the sack. Without speaking, she handed me the bag-wrapped bottle and indicated that I should take a taste. In those days, I never refused anything drinkable or smokeable, so I took a good-sized slug. The rush I got from the potent liquor reminded me of a cough medicine from my childhood known as Terpin Hydrate, which had a high alcohol content and a bizarre form of cherry flavor. When I told her this, she chuckled with the exact same laugh as the one at the end of her recording of “Mercedes Benz”, and told me in that raspy Janis voice, “It’s Southern Comfort, baby."

So, on that sunny day in Seattle, Washington, Janice Joplin gave me my first taste of Southern Comfort.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Poker With The Allman Brothers

Since the band often played large college towns, on the same bill as other name groups of the day, we eventually got around to doing a gig in Austin, Texas. On the bill, and probably sharing the headline, was the Allman Brothers.

I wasn’t as awe-struck this time, as I was with some of the other big names that we shared the stage with, but I had certainly heard Duane’s guitar playing on albums and the radio and was looking forward to hearing them play live.

Somewhere along the way, someone got us chatting together with a few members of Duane and Gregg’s band, in the hotel lobby of the Austin Holiday Inn. I think it was Gregg who mentioned that they were having a poker game in their hotel room that evening, and that any of us who wanted to show up were invited.

Around 10:00 p.m. that evening, Frank called my room and asked if I wanted to go to the poker game. Being the new guy in PG&E, I needed to have someone with some balls to tag along behind, and Petricca may have known that. In any case, I gladly accompanied him to the Allman’s hotel room.

After arriving, and some niceties, someone suggested that we get some drinks and snacks. I made the first of a number of runs to the snack machines, and loaded up on a variety of soda pop and vending machine snacks. That actually is one of the things that sticks out in my mind the most, other than how down-to-Earth and genuinely nice these Southern gentlemen were. Not once during the night did any alcohol or drugs come into the picture. It was a very sedate meeting of the road-musician minds, centered around a very friendly poker game. I say very friendly, because the rules were set from the beginning that there would be a fifty-cent maximum bet. With any winnings or losses set to that level, the likelihood of hard feelings was pretty much zero.

At about 7:00 a.m. that next morning, the game finally broke up. As I recall, I either lost or won around three dollars. The amount sticks in my mind, but not which way it went for me. Nobody else could have been heavier or lighter in the wallet than I, and we had become great friends. That’s actually one of the things about living on the road, as a musician back in those days: You became fast friends (or enemies), due to the speed your life was travelling. Everything happening to us, during that time, was in exaggerated time. So, the new friendship, although it was arrived at in “road-speed”, was very genuine. I saw confirmation some two weeks later, when Duane Allman himself came up to me--at a gig we did with them in Athens, Georgia--and gave me a big bear-hug.

Over the next couple years, Duane and I would cross paths, play music together, and ultimately witness our mutual decent into alcohol and drug abuse. I sure miss him today.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ron Moller; PG&E's head roadie (R.I.P.)

Moller was a true cocksman. He would cruise the entire college audience, at our gigs, until one chick would respond to his "wanna fuck?" technique. Then he'd take her by the hand and keep cruising. If the first catch left when the second consented, he only had to do it one more time with the second one, to end up with two who were game. Genius.

One morning, I freaked him out big time. I had a groupie in New York that was okay with my having another one sleep with us. The first had a dose, and couldn't safely 'do it', so it wasn't a true Ménage à trois. I was about 24 years old at the time; we were just kids...friends, really.

Anyway, three gals, who one of them knew, were hitch-hiking thru the state and needed a place to crash for the night. At the Chelsea, even though the rooms were not spotless or new, they were often pretty big. I had a double bed, a couch, a settee and a lounge-type chair and another chair, I think. The two friends of mine slept either side of me, while the others each had one of the other fairly comfy pieces of furniture.

The next morning, when Moller came to wake me, I let him in and he was struck with the vision of 5 young girls, laying in a state of undress all around my room. I was King For A Day.

I don't think I ever told him the true story.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Story Behind My Nickname

They Called Me Fast Kenny

When we first got down to North Miami Beach, in early 1970, it was after a few quick college gigs and we were pretty ready to take some R & R. I think that back then, we used to kind of home base in Miami when we were on the East Coast, even if we didn't have any gigs right there in town. In any case, I lucked out this first time around and got a room to myself, which suited me just fine. The other fellas were used to having groupies and other locals around, and having parties right in the hotel room, but I still liked my privacy and treasured it when I got the opportunity.

This particular time, I had either brought some weed along or just gotten my cut of a 'band ounce', and wanted to just smoke, watch some TV and chill out all by myself in my hotel room. I got myself situated in my room, put the stuff away that I didn't want to leave in the suitcase, and took out my stash and prepared to roll one up. I immediately saw that I had no rolling papers with me.

Now, I don't have (nor did I ever have) a photographic memory. But sometimes I would have something like little snapshots in my mind that would pop up, reminding me of something I had seen before. So, this particular time I saw a pack of papers, to the left of the lamp, on the nightstand in another band member's hotel room. Not wasting any time, I put on some shoes and headed to the room with the rolling papers.

I hit the door with one loud knock (our secret signal) and waited for someone to open up. Whoever came to the door, swung it open and told me to come in. There were about a dozen people all sitting around the room, some were on the floor since all the chairs were taken. I did a quick survey to plot my route from the doorway to the nightstand. Satisfied with my mental map, I proceeded to step over a person or two, up onto a footrest, back down and then over another person, up onto the bed to the right of the nightstand, back down between the stand and yet another person and finally next to the other bed and in front of the papers. I picked up the papers, looked up and asked nobody in particular, “Can I have these for a while?” Charlie, I think, said, “Sure, go ahead; we're done with them for now.” Apparently, they had already partaken of the pretty decent smoke that was available in Miami, back in 1970. I then turned around, and negotiated my way back out of the room by doing the very same gymnastics in reverse, as two dozen glazed eyes followed my movements without a word.

It wasn't uncommon, back in those days, for people in the traveling rock and roll business to walk in and out of each others lives without introduction. I think we probably took the saying “live fast; die young” to heart, and didn't see the need to constantly be introducing ourselves and each other to the many people that came and went. In this case, though, Charlie broke with that tradition. I later learned that even after the door to the hotel room closed behind me, the room stayed silent. That is until Charlie spoke up, introducing me after the fact, and said to the stunned group, “That was Fast Kenny Utterback, from Chicago, Illinois.” After that, they called me Fast Kenny.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

You Know I Can't Help It

Back in the day, around something like 1970-71, I used to stay at the Tropicana in Hollywood, when we weren't on the road. I could fill a very large book with just short tales of those days, but remembering them would be part of that process. Sadly, that is something that may not be entirely possible, due to lost brain cells. From what I hear, along with them go the memories contained therein. I know I had some great times, though, since the 'small brain' says so. (long memory, that little brain) More on that subject, later.

One great moment, that stayed etched in my brain (or perhaps resides in cells not destroyed), is something that happened around the pool, at the 'Trop', as we used to call it. Pools loom large in my legend. I would lay around a pool all day, everyday, if I was independently wealthy. Back in those days, actually, we acted like we were.

Now Stanley, our trumpet player back in the latter half of my stint with PG&E, was a very hip black man who was also from Chicago. He and I got along really well, maybe due to some combination of our love of The Blues, being Chicagoans or the fact that we were born in the same year. Whatever the reason, I always enjoyed spending time with him and listening to what he had to say. Stan was also a very intelligent person, so his humor--being kinda cerebral--was right up my alley. He also was able to articulate really well in a visual sort of way, which is not uncommon to artists who have speaking skills. On one particular day, he cracked me up with the tale of a little encounter of his own, around the pool.

Tootie (pronounced with the short-double 'o' sound, as in the word 'foot') was Sly Stone's sister. I think one of the reasons that Stan knew her, was because she was the trumpet player in Sly's band Sly and the Family Stone. Anyhow, Tootie went 'pimping' by Stan one day, on the pool deck, maybe on the way to her room. Pimping, by the way--as Stan called it--is kind of like a bouncing strut. Actually, to be as descriptive as I can be, it was a fairly well-known, cool-looking walk that was more common to black people back in that era. It really wasn't a swagger like the hip-hop or gangsta moves today, but rather a slow, bouncing, forward-leaning strut, sometimes accented with one hand hooked into the belt while the other hung at the side, swinging with the arm and shoulder slightly lower than the other side. Basically, a walk that says, "I am as cool as I can be."

Stan, who I think was leaning back on a pool chair enjoying the summer air, couldn't resist making a comment: "Tootie, why you so mean?" She cocked her head just enough to direct her answer to Stan, without changing her gait one bit, and said, "Aw, man. You know I can't help it."

Of all the cool things I have heard said, that would rank toward the top.