Now We’re 64 by Jay Jay French
If I titled this story ‘The Strange Life and Times of Richard Alderson,’ chances are:
a) My editor wouldn’t be too excited.
b) You probably wouldn’t read past the title.
c) As this is a Beatles column, you would naturally wonder what could possibly be the tie-in that would warrant this entire exercise.
In fact, this article is, in part, about the strange life of a NYC record producer named Richard Alderson and his experiences in the New York City music scene in the ‘60s that actually ties it all together.
To make all of this all the more convoluted and fascinating I will add this: In 1965 I was in my first band. It was a three-piece with Paul Herman on drums, vocals from a Chinese-American kid named Bing Gong and me (my birth name is John Segall).
We called ourselves John, Paul & Bingo!
We rehearsed two songs for an 8th grade school talent show: Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and The Fugs “I Couldn’t Get High.”
Needless to say, halfway through “I Couldn’t Get High” my guidance counselor stopped the show and threw us off the stage. I guess that a 13-year-old singing about not getting high wasn’t exactly appropriate for my age.
At that very moment I was thrown off stage in Manhattan, Richard Alderson was preparing to be Dylan’s live sound engineer on his European tour and he also had just ironically produced the song “I Couldn’t Get High” for The Fugs.
At 13 years of age, although I didn’t know Richard Alderson at the time, I crossed some kind of path with Richard.
Now, that my friends, is some kind of coincidence but wait….there’s more.
Richard went on to marry one of my oldest and dearest High School friends Jane Raab. Jane has gone on to produce major TV shows like Sex and the City and currently Blue Bloods.
Over the years Richard would tell me stories about the Village in the early ‘60s; about seeing Dylan perform for the first time at the Gaslight Cafe when Richard was just 24.
Richard was doing live sound for Harry Belafonte who was one on the few artists who traveled with his own sound system.
Richard was also an archivist who just happened to be at the right place at the right time in music history.
JJ: When you saw Dylan at the Gaslight for the first time I presume the manager Albert Grossman wasn’t yet involved. Do you remember hearing that Dylan signed with him?
Richard : When I recorded Bob at the Gaslight he had just signed with Grossman. I knew both Bob and Grossman from the Village about a year before I recorded him at the Gaslight. I was at the Gaslight a lot. I knew the owners Clarence Hood and his sons. I had built the Gaslight a simple sound system, and I also built a larger sound system for the Village Gate at that time.
JJ: Did Dylan go back and forth from the Gaslight to Gerde’s Folk City?
Richard: No idea. Dylan was writing songs at Chip Monck’s digs behind the Village Gate when I was there and Bob was given some attention from Adele Suhl who was a coffeehouse waitress. who would eventually become my second wife.
As fate would have it, sometime in October of 1962, Richard brought his Nagra mono tape recorder to the Gaslight and on the second of a two-night stand, Dylan debuted his newly written material.
This is where Richard (and the rest of the world) heard, for the first time — in front of maybe 25 people — songs like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.’
“Dylan debuted the songs he wrote at Chip’s place and everyone at the Gaslight that night was gobsmacked! This was the night that Dylan became Dylan!”
In 1966, Albert Grossman called Richard because he really liked the way that Harry Belafonte sounded live and offered him the job of mixing Dylan’s entire Australian and European tour that April and May, billed as Dylan & The Hawks. The Hawks consisted of Robbie Robertson on guitar, Richard Manuel on piano, Garth Hudson on organ, Rick Danko on bass and Mickey Jones on drums.
Richard recorded most of those shows (somehow forgotten for many years by Columbia Records) but were finally found and released in a 36-disc box set via Sony Legacy in 2016 with Richard finally getting the recognition he so richly deserved.
As legendary as that Dylan tour was to the ongoing myth of Bob Dylan, what I didn’t know until recently was a story about Richard meeting The Beatles in England during Dylan’s tour.
The Beatles loved Dylan and some members came to the Royal Albert Hall shows. During the band’s time in London, Richard accompanied Dylan to one of The Beatle’s flats to hang out. During that afternoon they all listened to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and were all blown away just like all the stories reported. (Except Richard was there!)
Richard then asked to go to Abbey Road to check out how recording was done in the U.K. and went by himself. As he was part of Dylan’s inner circle he was allowed into a Beatles recording session.
Richard was a producer and was as interested in the gear being used and as he was walking around while The Beatles were recording. Lennon quipped as Richard was walking around the studio, in a very Lennon-esque fashion, “Come to check out our wires, eh?”
After hanging out for a while, the session ended and Richard asked them if they wanted to go back to the hotel and hang out with Bob.
John and George took up the offer and gave Richard a ride to the hotel.
As they were driving to the hotel, they were smoking so much hash in the car that the windows were fogged over.
A small roadster pulled up next to their car and the window came down to reveal Mick Jagger driving alone and, having recognized the car that John and George were in, tapped on the window (with smoke billowing out). Jagger asked where they were all going.
According to Richard, it was commonly known in the inner sanctum of the hierarchy of the British music scene that Dylan did not like Mick Jagger personally. Moreover, John also knew this and teased Jagger with “We’re going over to Dylan’s hotel to hang out. Wanna join us?” Knowing full well that Jagger would come up with some excuse. And he did. Jagger said, “Can’t at the moment, I’m off to a recording session.” To which Lennon replied, according to Richard, “Call us if you need a real rhythm section!”
Richard, who still builds sound systems and recording studios, produced such legendary underground artists as The Fugs and Pearls Before Swine. He was also responsible for producing almost the entire output of the artists on the ESP label.
Richard Alderson has had an amazingly full life and you can read all about his incredible musical journey in his forthcoming book, co-written by Joe Hagan (the author of Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine), called Open The Door, Richard! Alderson also produced the soon-to-be-released CD set, Dylan at the Gaslight on Sony Legacy.
Jay Jay French is the founding member, guitarist and manager of Twisted Sister. French is also a motivational speaker and writes a business column for Inc. com.