John Morris, the legendary Head of Production at Woodstock '69 and Filmore East, talks to Su Wong about Sticky Pistil and the on-line music business. Morris found out about Sticky Pistil through Scott Kesson, Sticky Pistil's guitarist, with whom he shares a mutual friend. He has been highly interested in the band's activities ever since.
Su Wong: Tell me a little bit about your background in the music industry?
John Morris: All 35 years?
SW: (laughs) Tough call. How about the highlights?
JM: Well I guess I started out in '67 when I was doing English Political Satirical Theatre which was fading out, being locked in a room with Bill Graham and out of that I started working with Bill and with the Jefferson Airplane. Eventually, about a year or so later, after taking the Airplane to Europe with The Doors, put together the Anderson Theatre which was one of the first downtown rock halls in New York and that evolved into running the Filmore East, which became being the Head of Production for Woodstock, which became moving to London and having the Rainbow Theatre in London, which became producing concerts all over Europe for a few years, which became coming back here and doing concerts here in America. In . . . what was it . . . 1989? Well, the last Woodstock, they called me up and asked me to come back and be an announcer at the Woodstock Festival after having jerked me around for a couple of months and I said I'm retired. I listened to myself. So that's it . . . that's 35 years.
SW: (laughs) Efficiently done. So were you at Woodstock '99?
JM: Nah. You must be joking. Scott was my delegate.
SW: How did you get to know Scott?
JM: Well, I got to meet Scott because he does restoration and Indian material and because he works with Robert Parsons who's one of my very good friends washing Navajo rugs. I met him a couple of times. I also knew he plays guitar and he used to play at Robert's once in a while. None of which really registered until they had gotten one of the spots at the alternate stage at Woodstock and Robert called me up and said, "Scott's gonna play Woodstock!" He wants to come down and talk to you about the old days and I said, "I'll be happy to but what the hell good is that to him?!" So he and Robert came down and we had an evening when we got about halfway through the old stories and he told me what he'd done which just flabbergasted me -- how they basically got themselves going in this situation. They were . . . what? . . . one out of twelve out of five thousand. And I sat there and thought, "This is as close as I want to get." This is wonderful. This is where it should be because it's the energy, it's the figuring out how to make it work, and I thought, "This is all I want to do with Woodstock at all." So Scott became my association to what Woodstock was. He's wonderful. He's a great interesting guy. And I think what they did and how they were doing it was just . . . not that it's the old-fashioned way, it sure as hell isn't . . . but it's a really creative wonderful way.
SW: Definitely. . . . What do you think of the current Woodstock?
JM: Of this past one? (pause) A) I was not here. B) I didn't watch much of it on television. I probably saw 10 or 15 minutes and I saw some news reports so based on that . . . and I have friends that were involved in it. Um . . . my old secretary was Mike Lang's secretary . . . um, but what do I think about it? It's evolved over a period of time between the '89 thing . . . or whatever year it was, I'm getting old, I can't remember anything, it's sorta gone downhill in a way. My instant reaction when watching the bit that I saw on MTV were twofold. One, they had accomplished what we fought to keep the first Woodstock from being which was having DJ-type announcers and people making commentary. I hated what I saw of this as far as the people, the people whose names I don't know. The hip jockeys who were dressed by a certain company and seemed wonderfully clean to be standing there who were above the people not of the people. We fought that a great deal. I mean, we prevented that from happening. As far as the violence and the burning and the rest of it I regard that as a failure on the part of the people who were producing it. I don't know who the band was . . . Bizkit or something . . .
SW: Limp Bizkit?
JM: Yeah. If I were there and I had known about what kinda band it was, they wouldn't be on the stage. If he had done it on the stage, I'd had him by the throat, put him there in the middle of the stage and say, "You're standing here until this is calm." I'm not going to give great long diatribes against the youth of today and the this and the that. I mean, the one thing I know from having done that a great deal is that you control it by your attitude, control it with the ambience and the atmosphere that you create or you don't. And if you don't, this is what can happen.
SW: So have you actually heard Sticky Pistil perform?
JM: I've heard the CD.
SW: And what do you think?
JM: I think it's really interesting. It isn't me but it's really interesting.
SW: What's you?
JM: Oh . . . I'm an old fart.
JM: (laughs) I mean, I listen to classical music. You know, make me pick a band (pauses) I think the music nosedived some time in the late '70s. But Eric Clapton is still the greatest there ever was. Robert Plant is a great character and creates some fascinating music.
SW: Would it be rude to ask you how old you are?
JM: I'm 60. I turned 60 in May in a Carribean island. It's the only place you should be allowed to turn 60. I don't think I'm 60 but chronologically . . .
SW: How old do you feel?
JM: Oh, I don't know. Somewhere back well before that. It's very strange because 60 is there, you can't avoid it. It's a big number. But you start thinking, "I'm not 60. If my mother was still alive, she'll be telling me to go get a job!"
JM: I don't feel 60.
SW: You don't sound 60.
JM: I . . . can I make it easy for ya?
JM: I've sent one e-mail. It took me an hour to figure it out. I don't regard e-mail as a method of communication and I never check my mailbox. I don't know the first thing . . .I don't even type. I don't use a computer. In a way, consciously never have. Not anti it but . . . it doesn't interest me. Scott interests me and what they are doing and how they did it and the fact that there are ways of doing it and they are creative enough to think them up and what they can do with the technology and that they want to do it. I think it's wonderful! I mean I have the greatest admiration for that. He was telling me also about the music scene in Taos and I'm like, "What?" The raves and the parties. I sat there with my mouth hanging open.
SW: How often do you come to Taos?
JM: Oh, I don't know. Maybe 10 to 15 times a year. I go to "Joseph's Table" or I go to Robert's or go for a ride in the mountains. No conception that any of this existed. Literally, my mouth was hanging open. I was flabbergasted and I thought it was wonderful. I'm trying to avoid using the word "positive" even though I want to use it. It does have a positive energy.
SW: The guys are great just by being able to do all this through the computer and, of course, having the substance to back it up.
JM: It's staggering. It's wonderful. It isn't me which says nothing more than . . . I mean, I get up at 6 o'clock in the morning. Then it's time to get started after a bottle of wine at 10. To me, knowing Scott and knowing this happened then seeing what I've seen at Woodstock thing makes me feel that they made some mistakes because if he can have the positiveness, the energy of the people around and there can be a scene like what he's telling me there is a music scene in Taos then it's the failure of handling and understanding to have had what did happen to have happened. I called the lady who used to work with me a few days ago and said, "How are you?" She's not as old as me. She said, "I'm in the middle of a meeting and I'm absolutely ok and what you read and what you hear is not true." Ok, you said the one thing that I care about and that's you're ok, the rest of it I'll disregard . . . until I actually talk to you. Like the editorial in the Sunday New York Times, basically there shouldn't be any Woodstock. Basically saying you guys have run it this far and you've lost what you've wrought. You wanna keep doing it.
SW: Is this the headline "Oh to be young and at the wrong Woodstock."
SW: That they shouldn't be trying to recreate the Woodstock of '69?
JM: Well they couldn't. They didn't try that the last one and they didn't try it this time. What they tried to do was use the name and make the name work for them. But they didn't follow all the way down the line.
SW: So what's your average day like nowadays? Do you still organize concerts?
JM: No, I organize antique shows as befitting a senior age. I do two shows in Santa Fe -- the Summer Antiquity Show and the Winter Antiquity Show. And I'm doing one in Seattle in November and I’m doing one in Denver in December and what they are . . . it's like Rock'n'Roll only so far I hadn't had to bail somebody and I hadn't had to pay for any thrashed hotel room.
SW: A main aspect of the Sticky Pistil story and the MP3 technology is the potential for artists to get ripped-off their rightful earnings with their songs posted on the Internet for anyone to download. Can you comment on that?
JM: The idea that people can now make their own CD, reach a wide group of people and sell to the users direct is an anathema to the old-line record industry. The idea that the old-line record industry can put out a record and people around the world can download it and not give them any money for it is a definite reality. It's difficult for the artist. I was with someone who was actually in publishing and he manages a lot of publishing in catalogues and I asked him, "What's going to happen?" and he said, "Nobody knows." He said some of the Internet companies that are doing it are very publicly collecting royalties and paying the songwriter and the rest of it. I think that, on one hand, the record companies have cut their own throat by not paying attention to the technology and then having paid attention to it, trying to stop other people from doing it. I mean, how are you going to do that short of trying to get the government to make it illegal. There's got to be a better way. But at the same time, accountants have run record companies for the last 10 to 20 years . . . totally and absolutely. There are very few creative people involved with record companies anymore. It’s the dollars-and-cents guys who run the whole thing and they have been bought and sold the same way you buy and sell stocks. I mean there was the period this spring when the whole Polygram, MCA, blah blah blah, are no more. The old ways have become anachronistic because of the technology. I mean take Sticky Pistil. What are their odds of submitting a CD to what's left of the record companies and being picked up and being signed and being given a decent amount of money and not be in a situation where they have such a lousy royalty deal with no guarantee that the record company would spend any money to promote them, with no guarantee that they'll get tour support . . . with no guarantee of anything because the record companies believe that I am X record company therefore you should be kissing my ring and I will take advantage of you as much as humanly possible. You should be grateful. (pause) I don't think so.
SW: But for an artist starting out, that's so much still what they want, a record deal.
JM: Of course they want a record deal but the question is, now, "Who do you want to get a record deal with?" I mean with some of these new Internet-based companies, younger people who are thinking of it. It's like the guy, American Records, I think it was, who when Johnny Cash no longer had a record deal, took him on and worked like crazy and gave him . . . what was it? His 5th or 6th career?
SW: But where are the artists going to get their revenue from if their entire album can be downloaded from the Net?
JM: The thing in that is at this stage in their career, that might be a good thing because if all sorts of people download their a track or two and are interested enough, that means they are interested enough in the band and therefore they are building a following. So if they sign with a record company, they are walking through the door with a base. The difference between now and twenty-five years ago is if they walked in and sat down with somebody who has a record company, they're not somebody who's dragging a guitar behind them saying, "I'm good, man." It's somebody dragging a laptop behind him saying, "Look, we've had 68,000 hits for our record or information about us." That's power. (pause) It's not power. It's having enough bullets in your gun. It's, "Here's proof that we are real." I assume that along the line there will be some market adjustment that will make it make sense. For their sake, I hope it does happen that way.
SW: What do you think playing Woodstock will mean to Sticky Pistil?
JM: The value to them, in dollars and cents and attention, will be greater. They made it happen. They made their own break and that, if you really wanted me to go back, is a really '69 Woodstock thing.