A brief US Histo(u)ry – written by Rick Chafen, published in Facelift 11, 1993

reprinted October 2020 as a tribute to Rick Chafen 1950-2020

Facelift expressed interest in our US touring network and how it came about, so I’ll use that as an invitation to wax eloquent and collect old notes and memories and thoughts.

In 1965, on my 15th birthday, I got to meet and spend house with … The Zombies, and English band visiting my hometown here in the middle of the States. This proximity may have been significant, for one of them mentioned that Englishcopies of the Beatles albums had 14 tracks, while their American counterparts had only eleven, meaning that Capitol Records could release an extra LP for every three or four… This got me searching for English copies, and English shops which would sell and ship to me.

By 1968, I was turning into a fan of Jimi Hendrix and Cream, contacting Jimi’s record company for tour itineraries, calling the venues during the gigs, and asking the folks who answered to just leave the phone off the hook so I could listen through the lines. Then, I found a gig that was only 600 miles away, so off I went, to Denver, Colorado. I had to first sit through The Eire Apparent, Soft Machine and Vanilla Fudge. The Soft Machine portion of the evening must have changed my life, for I haven’t recovered yet.

This gig set me seriously on the trail of ‘Import Music’, which I collected voraciously. I started seeking and reading newspapers from the other side of the Atlantic – like Melody Maker, which would be filed with new of other things I should try and find, and more of the occasional export shop.

By 1974, I had amassed a nice collection of hard-to-find, but marvellous music from other countries, especially England. I suggested to the program director of a free-form commercial FM station that he borrow some of my records, just to play the music for others. He said that I should produce a radio program for this purpose, and that I should call it ‘Her Majesty’s Voice’. For most of the next 15 years, HMV was a Sunday night fixture on various FM stations around here.

In the early days, 1974 and 1975, I’d write scripts to enthuse about the music and send those scripts, or extracts, to the record companies. I guess I hoped they’d like what I said that that they’d quote my comments in their own adverts or promotions. Well, I don’t remember ever being quoted, but the record companies liked what I was going enough to start sending me everything else they were releasing – well, Virgin and Charisma sent everything but many of the others just sent occasional care packages. Collectively, the results were twofold, lots more material to play on the radio, and more refined personal tastes, by listening to far more than would have otherwise been available.

In January 1978, I got a phone call from Gail Colson, who at that time was still joint managing director of Charisma. We’d corresponded for some years, but she called while in New York and announced that Peter Hammill would be performing in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco during the next month. I suggested in a quick geography lesson that he couldn’t play those three cities without passing over Kansas City twice, so all we’d have to do was get him to stop once. So, our first live concert occurred in February 1978. People came from hundreds of miles in all directions for the event, and I tried to get their names, numbers and addresses.

Our second gig was also a Peter Hammill gig, in March 1979, but then there was a flurry of them: Gong’s travelling Manifestival, an entourage of 22 musicians, including Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, Harry Williamson, Yochk’o Seffer, the Zu Band, and more, played an outdoor (well, backyard, really) poetry gig one night, and an extravagant opera house gig the next night. Georgio Gomelsky even showed up for that gig.

Then we did a Robert Fripp Frippertronics gig in a record shop. But meanwhile, Bill Bruford’s band Bruford was touring, and Dave Stewart kept very copious notes on all cities, gigs, venues, contacts, promoters, phone numbers and reactions. Dave shared these notes with me, as I embarked on the unfathomable task of booking a whole tour for National Health for November 1979. Well, somehow, it happened.

During 1980, I worked extensively with Daevid Allen, who was touring with his Divided Alien Clockwork Band show – sometimes opening the show with a poetry reading cum history lesson, and sometimes with a lady vocalist accompanying herself on auto-harp. I think there were some 35 dates on his four cross-country treks – driving all the while – sometimes a broken-down station wagon, sometime a hired lorry, and God knows what else. I think Daevid was living in his car for a while, especially when it was broken into in Los Angeles and his guitar was stolen.

Mother Gong were next – late 1980 and through January 1981, Harry Williamson and Gilli Smyth did their prototypical Robot Woman set to backing tracks calling it Science Fiction Rock Theatre. But there was one dramatic difference from earlier tours – they flew everywhere. Certain American airlines offer unlimited usage stand-by airpasses to foreign nationals. This revelation could have served us very well, except that nobody else came to tour for a while.

I don’t know what happened in the 1980s – all of my contacts moved, or at least I lost track of them. In 1985 I lured Jim Pembroke, the astonishingly brilliant singer/songwriter/pianist – an Englishman who’s lived in Helsinki, Finland, since 1985 – over to our house, but I didn’t know what to do with him, so he played in our living room for two months, also playing a series of Thursday night gigs locally. In 1986, a Finnish folk/jazz band, Karelia, toured briefly, and included a Kansas City show, but these were the only evidence of touring activities in the Eighties.

Shortly after the Mother Gong tour in early 1981, Daevid Allen left the US and moved back to Australia, where I lost track of him. He’d given me the wrong number for his mum’s and I didn’t find him for six years.

But, in early 1987, when I found Daevid at Harry and Gilli’s house in Melbourne, everything seemed to gear up again. They all sent new music for the radio program, and a lengthy interview on the state of their music and their lives.

In 1988, Daevid left Australia for England, and by 1990, the ITV Bedrock series was occurring. My wife Martha and a couple of other people made it to Glastonbury for a Gong public rehearsal and to Nottingham for the TV taping. Everyone in the band seemed to want to tour America. I was the only person they knew who’d arranged such possibilities before, so they said I should do it again. Time passed and plans began to develop. Daevid agreed to be a trail-blazer for a month-long tor in March 1991. I had a hard time getting it going. I started randomly calling record shops across the country, asking if they carried imports, had they ever heard of Gong, and would they like to help sponsor a Daevid gig. Most people were of no help at all, but the beginnings of networking could be seen. I glot loads of new contacts, and eventually coaxed about a dozen people into becoming promoters. First requirement was that they were a fan, and the second requirement was a willingness to embark on the uncharted journey.

I collected enough deposits to pay for Daevid’s airfare and his US airpass. We had some tense moments on that tour – especially when Daevid was ready for his first gig, but his costumes and gear were still in England. He had to do the first gig without costumes, but only the first one.

I quickly made the acquaintance of an airline employee just dashing to London and back and managed to get his gear delivered to a hotel in London, and brought to Kansas City, where I put it on the next flight out to Los Angeles. I suppose little moments like this have created a sort of mystique for accomplishing impossible tasks, but I’m not the only one who’s resourceful. We now have over 45 people who I call promoters, all of whom try lots of different approaches, and because it’s a network, most of them are likely to hear from some of the others about what’s working.

As a network goes, it works in many ways. In some cities, the original fan/promoter makes all of the arrangements personally; in some cities, there are committees or collectives of fans who divide responsibilities and expenses. Some promoters also play in bands they have as the support act for our artists. Some promoters hire halls and PAs, some sell the show to clubs, and some simply talk clubs into letting the acts play there, and collect the proceeds from the door.

I’ve begun to refer to the network as the tour of the 4C’s – Cafes, Cabarets, Clubs and Cathedrals: however; during some tours, I’ve threatened to replace two Cs with Crises and Chaos.

Following closely on the heels of Daevid’s March 1991 tour was a tour for another old Gongster, Hi T Moonweed, Mr Tim Blake himself. This was another exercise in grandiose resourcefulness. In order for Tim to perform solo, he requires a computer, so I arranged with one of the promoters to trade out the cost of the gig in return for the use of the specified computer (an Atari, which is in widespread use in England and Europe, but not the States). This computer was rendered useless by airline baggage handlers after a mere two gigs, so each promoter needed to secure one on anything from a couple of days to a fortnight’s notice.

In August 1991 we were again graced with a Daevid Allen’s Twelve Selves tour, this time with the built in support act, Thom the Poet. Essentially this tour amounted to what we call summer re-runs, as it didn’t end up playing in all that many different cities from the March tour.

In October and November 1991, there was a Mother Gong tour. Things seemed to be escalating, but also seemed to require rather more glue to hold them together. This tour was also quite different in that I went to most of the gigs, actually meeting the promoters to whom I’d only been a voice on the phone. Usually, I live the life of a hermit, handcuffed to the telephone.

The tour of Mother Gong, a tour of four people flying stand-by, began in the Huntsville, Texas public library on a Saturday afternoon, while the library was open! The gig included loads of participatory activities: attendees writing their own poetry and acting the part of a tree at appropriate moments, for instance.

Two friends and I left Kansas City at 1.30 the night before and drove over 12 hours to arrive at the library, two minutes before 2.00 start time. That same night, a gig was set in Houston, an hour or so away. And, again, on Sunday night, another Houston gig, which was a shame really, as between the two there were barely enough attendees for even one.

But then, the adventure began! The band, of course, ,was flying, but my friend (also named Rick – we never get confused but some people do…) and I decided to drive along. Next stop: New York City, for a great gig in a great little club called The Wetlands. Then, on to Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland and Kansas City, where Mother Gong opened for Bob Dylan in a 300 theatre on one night played on their own in an isolated gallery the next. Then, the band flew on to Chicago and San Francisco without me, but with Rick in tow, and then they backtracked to Denver, the last date I managed, although the band continued with another San Francisco and two in Los Angeles.

As I mentioned, my appearance was quite a surprise to most of the promoters for whom I’d only been a voice on the phone. But it proved to be a great opportunity to merchandise and get a great start on a mailing list. By this time, Rob Ayling and I had launched Voiceprint Records, so the need to locate and stay in touch with fans/customers was very apparent.

One of our most popular tours – both in levels of attendance and receptivity – was in March 1992: Daevid Allen’s Magick Brothers. This tour was a bit hectic especially in terms of the tremendous amount of gear travelling with the band. They managed to get snowed in in Rochester, New York, for several days, but didn’t miss any gigs.

1992 was filled with diversity: a solo Gilli Smyth tour occurred in July, and our second Tim Blake tour in September and a bit of October. Tim’s last two dates coincided with the first two dates by members of Finland’s Wigwam. These two dates, Detroit and San Francisco, I also managed to attend. Now I know that Finland (and even Finchley, where Jim Pembroke is from) is a long way from Canterbury, but I’m quite sure that Canterbury afficionados could ery much appreciate the immense talents within any version of Wigwam. For our tour, often mistakenly promoted as a Wigwam gig, Jim Pembroke played electric piano and Pekka Rechardt played electric guitar, some of the finest heard on the planet.

Sometime during 1992, I decided that it was time for a Kevin Ayers tour, so I started telling the promoters that I would be able to offer them this tour later in the year. Kevin didn’t know anything about this until July or August, by which time my rumour had developed quite a lot of credibility. Kevin faxed me that he was interested in our 4 C’s, and I got a tour fixed for November and December. Then it happened that his European tour had been extended by several weeks, so I had to reschedule the whole tour.

In early November 1992, Richard Sinclair rang to say that he’d just done some solo dates in Italy, and was no longer reluctant to do them, so, since Kevin wasn’t coming round, perhaps he’d come and do Kevin’s dates. Great, I said, why don’t you call me two weeks ago before I cancel the whole thing? But, miraculously, we managed to put in 17 dates for Richard – in December – when we didn’t think anyone could tour successfully!

Richard did something which I thought was both brave and clever – he asked me to recruit supportive musicians who could join him for gigs. So he literally was showing up on stage in some cities meeting bands who said they knew his songs. So, that tour occurred with generous helpings of spontenaiety, and quite a few of the gigs remained solo performances, in which he played a remarkable diversity of songs from throughout his colourful history, as well as pieces in progress. Three of the dates had actually been Kevin’s at first, so Richard promised to play Kevin’s songs at those gigs – notably ‘He would have done it again’!

We had already scheduled a Richard Sinclair’s Caravan of Dreams tour for April 1993, before the solo tour occurred, so the solo appearances were supposed to help make the band tour more viable.

With the conclusion of Richard’s solo tour, we began to focus on what I started calling The Tour Of The Month Club, with Kevin Ayers in February, Daevid Allen’s Magick Brothers, Caravan of Dreams in April, Gilli Smyth in May, Phil Miller and Fred Baker in June, and Didier Malherbe and Shyamal Maitra in July. It was my fervent belief that all promoters could benefit by doing more, and by doing it more regularly. In this way, or so the theory went, each gig could include announcements about upcoming dates, hopefully already set in the calendar. But that was only the plan, reality turned out to be quite different.

The Kevin Ayers tour was a great personal delight to me, as I still credit the Soft Machine with giving me my ears, and this was the first time I’d ever seen any of them perform live again. I’d met Kevin in London in 1978, and done an extensive interview, but a solo performance was quite another matter. Audiences everywhere loved his shows, and we got the best press coverage of any tour – so good, in fact, it probably amounts to more than all the other tours combined. The one point the press kept picking up on was that in Kevin’s last tour he’d supported Jimi Hendrix. And, this was his first solo tour anywhere. By its conclusion, Kevin was ready to come back and paly another tour, perhaps even later in 1993.

About halfway into Kevin’s tour we got word that Daevid Allen was again suffering a lingering back problem and would be unable to travel. So, I had to cancel that entire tour. Then Richard Sinclair’s band decided to start two weeks later – on April 15, and Gilli Smyth thought she’d begin ten days earlier than we’d planned. This meant that two tours would be criss-crossing the country almost simultaneously.

As both record company and touring business escalate dramatically, we reached the inception of these two tours, I suddenly had to go to England on Voiceprint business, traversing the country with Rob Ayling.

This necessitated the creation of mountains of forms, charts, and letters to all promoters with flight arrivals for the band, departures information, and providing them with systems by which they can assess their interest and commitment for 8 or 10 upcoming or proposed tours.

I also imagined and suggested an actual travel routing for the next two: Phil Miller/Fred Baker and Didier/Shyamal. In this way, I hoped that promoters would complete the forms and return them to me for my use after returning. Since all this is at the moment still in the future, these outcomes shall have to wait for a later instalment.

As I reflect on what it takes to accomplish and maintain these tours, I don’t know how much of it is actually transferrable. It has required huge amounts of time on the phone, all over the world, and huge telephone bills; it also takes lots of negotiating, for dates, fees and terms. It takes lots of encouragement to keep the promoters going in the face of certain difficulties. Sometimes, the musicians require encouragement as well. There’s been a massive amount of networking, for going on three years now. It takes incredible passion and patience, and the endless commitment to resourcefulness – the certain belief that there’s always another way to accomplish things. And of course, somehow I have to be able to listen to all of the fanatics who call, and screen them to determine which ones are likely candidates to become promoters. But, I know it’s all working – tours continue, more and more promoters and cities continue to develop, and someday it may even start to run smoothly as I’d like, there’s no way I could quit now. As long as these glorious musicians don’t give up, how can I? Besides with Voiceprint issuing and re-issuing so many collectable artefacts, everything should continue to escalate.

Watch this space for reports on upcoming escapades.

Rick Chafen, April 1993

Our thoughts go to Martha and family. I understand Rick Chafen has contributed a chapter to “The Canterbury Sound in Popular Music: Scene, identity and Myth”, to be published by Emerald Press shortly

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