Before Carl Bernstein chased scandal, he was catching Iron Butterfly.
Carl Bernstein lost his most recent day job, as executive vice president of Voter.com, when the fiscally unfit Web site went offline earlier this year. He purchased the company’s holdingsspoils that included rights to the domain names Votersucks.com, Votersucks.net, and Votersucks.orgvia a public auction that ended in March, but he hasn’t yet announced his plans to get it up and running again.
If he’s never able to get Voter.com back online and finds himself looking for work, there is one vocation that Bernstein should probably not revisit. Before becoming part of the reporting duo that is remembered as, well, the Lennon and McCartney of newspapering, he was an occasional rock critic for the Washington Post. Though assigned to the city desk, Bernstein also reviewed concerts and albums in his early years at the paper. Until, as Bernstein says, “Watergate happened.”
That put Bernstein on the beat during what was arguably the golden age of rock. Yet his critiques have never gotten much attention, in part because most folks would rather ask Bernstein about Deep Throat than Deep Purple, and because the Post’s archives make ferreting out his musical musings from the late ’60s only slightly less difficult than uncovering the identity of the duo’s most famous font of scoops.
That’s probably good for Bernstein. Plain and simple, the skills he later wielded while bringing down a president aren’t readily manifest in his arts oeuvre. Alas, were the allegedly more wordsmithy half of Woodward and Bernstein to assemble a greatest-hits collection from his own clips, it’s doubtful that many of his rock reviews would make the cut.
Take, for example, Bernstein’s rave about Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 LP Green River: “CCR demonstrates that they’re a superior band in the best sense of the word. They play the kind of music that makes you want to dancenothing very complicated, just good music, always excellently played.”
Bernstein also lauded L.A.-based bombast rockers Iron Butterfly for their “Bach-like organ chorales” and “spine-chilling dissonance that somehow holds together” in his review of the band’s Columbia, Md., show. He fell particularly hard for the group’s signature monsterpiece, “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” a tune that time and altered pop sensibilities have rendered ridiculous. But back in the day, 25 minutes of the song weren’t enough for the critical Bernstein.
“‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida’ is held together by a long, erotic drum solo that moves contrapuntally with clapping from the audience,” Bernstein wrote. “The drum solo is bridged to a driving bass line on top of which is layered a dark organ passage and siren-sounding guitar. The combination works perfectly, allowing each element to be heard on its own and as a whole. The composition ends with repetition of the opening theme which builds, codalike until the piece explodes in orgasmic frenzy.”
These days, Bernstein is putting together a Hillary Clinton biography. Contacted in his Upper East Side home, where he’s doing much of the writing, Bernstein tells me he remembers his critic gig quite fondly. In fact, the now-57-year-old Bernstein recalls, he actually had applied for a job at Rolling Stone before taking on the Watergate story. That investigation, along with bringing him journalistic transcendence, made Bernstein forget whatever anger and hurt he felt when the Post brought in another writer, Tom Zito, to be the first full-time rock critic.
(Bernstein isn’t the only Postie who did time on the rock beat on the way to better things. Jim Hoagland, the twice-Pulitzered foreign-policy and political columnist with the paper, apparently had heard enough music after catching Jimi Hendrix’s matinee show at the Hinckley Hilton in March 1968. In his review of the show, Hoagland railed that Hendrix was too counter to his own culture”His blackness is an Uncle Tom blackness”belittled the star’s stage antics as juvenileJimi’s now-immortal guitar-burning ritual at the Monterey Pop Festival made him “an instant legend in junior high school”and scorched Hendrix as “more evil than Elvis ever dreamed of being.” The fans at the Hilton show, Hoagland concluded, “think Jimi Hendrix is where it’s at. If he is, I’m not sure that I want to go.” Well, the next year, Hoagland went to the Post’s foreign-correspondent staff, was sent to Nairobi, and won his first Pulitzer Prize while briefly writing under the very rocky byline Jimmie Lee Hoagland.)
When asked if he remembers reviewing Iron Butterfly, Bernstein pauses, and, in tones a guy waking up after a hard night on the town might use, he asks: “I didn’t like Iron Butterfly, did I? Oh, God no! ‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida’? I said I liked ‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida’? Oh, please!”
This bit of “orgasmic frenzy”-related remorse notwithstanding, Bernstein tells me he’d use his first mulligan to redo his assessment of another band, if granted the opportunity.
“I really missed it on Led Zeppelin,” he says.
Bernstein is talking about a July 1969 review, when he covered the Laurel Pop Festivala two-day concert held at a suburban Maryland racetrack. Bernstein brutalized “the British groups” on the bill, a bluesy crop that included Zeppelintouring at the time in support of its first LPand the Jeff Beck Group, a prototypical hard-rock combo founded by Jimmy Page’s former Yardbirds crony.
To Bernstein’s ears, these bands hadn’t “demonstrated talent in anything but making raucus [sic], unmodulated, unoriginal noise,” and the positive feedback their playing received from fans at the festival and from the record-buying public at large “make it unpleasant to contemplate where rock is going.”
Without citing them by name, Bernstein also haymakered both Zeppelin’s singer, Robert Plant, and the then-unheralded lead throat of the Jeff Beck Group, a Scotsman by the name of Rod Stewart: “They are engaged in a latter-day version of blackface,” he wrote.
All these years later, Bernstein can stomach his dismissal of Stewart, though he’s not entirely cozy with the prose used to do so. But failing to foresee Page and Plant’s becoming, well, the Woodward and Bernstein of ’70s hard rock still bothers him.
“I get Led Zeppelin now. I love them. But, boy, did I not get that band then,” he says. “I’m ashamed. But, what can I say? You get to be wrong once in a while.”
Yeah, tell that to Nixon. CP