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Mike Wilhelm: Dapper and dangerous as usual

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"May the baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind." That's what it says on the Family Dog's logo and that's how Lake County's finest guitarist, Mike Wilhelm, signs his e-mails these days.

 

It's an anonymous quote, probably contributed by Family Dog founder and Avalon Ballroom entrepreneur, Chet Helms, who died in June 2005. Helms was the power behind the throne of both the concert hall and the people promoted shows.


Wilhelm attended Helms' funeral where he says a large urn containing Helms' ashes sat next to a smaller one with the overflow and a blown up portrait of the anti-Bill Graham standing in front of Palo

Alto's Antonio's Nut House with its "Hippies Use Side Door" sign.


Wilhelm's old band, The Charlatans (with Dan Hicks), played the Avalon in the 60s -- as well as Virginia City's Red Dog Saloon, establishing themselves as the first psychedelic band in San Francisco and Nevada.


Charlatans George Hunter and the late Mike Ferguson also produced the first psychedelic posters for Family Dog and the Avalon.


Wilhelm, who is on the cover of one of the histories of Haight-Ashbury, penned by an ex-Billboard editor, is all over the photos in others in the company of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, etc.


Last year he had a problem with his hand, which was cured by Chinese acupuncture. Later he was invited by Flamin' Groovies founder, Cyril Jordan, to sit in at a Plimsouls Reunion/Magic Christian in San Francisco at the Cafe du Nord on Market Street.


Wilhelm was in the Flamin' Groovies, named the number four SF band of all time by the Chronicle in 2000 (right after the Grateful Dead) for six years. Magic Christian is Jordan's new band, with drummer Prairie Prince (The Tubes), Roger Daltry-like lead vocalist "without the English accent," Paul Kopf, and British music archivist and bassist, Alec Palao.


Palao wrote the liner notes for the English issued "The Amazing Charlatans" and produced boxed sets by The Zombies and Creedence Clearwater Revival as well as the ever popular "Nuggets" anthologies of one-hit wonders.


Peter Case, who's just reformed his 70s band, The Plimsouls, busked the streets of San Francisco in bygone times with Wilhelm and others.


In his post-concert blog at www.petercase.com, Case describes his dressing room reunion with the "Kaiser:" "Wilhelm comes in looking dapper and dangerous as usual, the quintessential SF musician/1890s outlaw vibe ... and we start jammin' up there. I never play like this with anybody. We do 'Stagolee,' (Mike's strange, rocking endless old ragtime version with the big chorus no one's heard, the one we used to do on the street).


"Then 'Ella Speed,' the Mance Lipscomb song that begins with the lines: 'first time I shot Ella, I shot her through the side'... outrageous ... I'd cut an album of this stuff with Wilhelm ..."


In a post-concert phone interview, Wilhelm gave his version of the dressing room reunion: "I brought my resonator guitar upstairs with me so as to be able to go over the songs we would play at the jam with Peter and his boys ... Peter and I reminisced about playing on the streets of North Beach and Chinatown where we first met back in the early-mid seventies ... Peter asked about my ragtime version of "Stagger Lee,' which has nearly endless verses and a chorus he has never heard anyone else do ... I then started and Peter quickly joined in playing Mance Lipscomb's decidedly original version of 'The Death of Ella Speed.' "


Wilhelm learned the latter from Lipscomb. That and his having had Brownie McGee as his guitar teacher give the man a direct line straight back to the old guys.


My favorite Wilhelm stories still come from Lake County though. One time, coming off a two-week isolation due to illness, Mike came to my house and literally spent eight hours reminiscing about the Flamin' Groovies legendary tours of Europe.


In Manchester, England, he recalled, the Groovies played one night after the legendarily volatile English-French punk rock band, The Stranglers. Manchester is famous for its tough criticism so the Stranglers actually went out, sought out the particularly vicious critic, and beat him up.


When the Groovies hit the stage the next night in the Beatlesque costumes they then favored, the audience was, shall we day, a tad unfriendly. So the band left, then Wilhelm came out again, alone, "dapper and dangerous as usual," as Case put it, and simply said in his Johnny Cash deep bass voice: "We agree with The Stranglers; there are older laws."


The Manchester audience remained most respectful for the rest of the evening.


Another Wilhelm tale: When the Groovies played the Sports Palace in Berlin, where Hitler made many of his speeches, not only was it eerie, but when Mike hit the stage someone yelled out at the top of their lungs -"(Expletive Deleted) you, Mike Wilhelm!


Mike figures it was a response to his gesture towards Bill Graham at the end of the film, "The Last Days of the Fillmore.


In any case, it was something akin to the infamous heckler at the Dylan/Band concert at Royal Albert Hall.


Heckler: "Traitor!" Dylan: "I don't believe you!"


For the Sunday's last concert, Mike changed in the "airless" dressing room, into his equally "dapper" outfit, a Black Italian suit with a Crosby, Stills & Nash Fillmore tie, diplomat shirt with pale blue stripes and white collar and cuffs. His spider-in-web cufflinks were a gift from Richard Olsen (Charlatans) back in 1967.


I once had dinner at a restaurant with Mike and his lovely wife, Ana Maria, and he left the orginal 60s Charlatans black cowboy hat behind. But, only briefly, as we went back and got it.


You'll notice a lot of Wilhelm in George Thorogood, who was taken in by the then Loose Gravel guitarist and taught most everything he knows, including how to dress for performance. The Charlatans favored a 19th Century frontier look that bands like the Doobie Brothers later emulated for their robbing the stagecoach LP cover. Stevie Ray Vaughn's hat comes to mind as well.


Mike's only comment: "Poor old misguided Bill Graham is no longer around to collect the royalties on his necktie line."


In "The Last Days of the Fillmore," Wilhelm told Graham what he thought of him for not allowing Loose Gravel to play in the recorded concert, via his middle finger.


"Bill liked it so much," Wilhelm once told me, "they kept it in."


The man who told off Bill Graham didn't actually sit in with Magic Christian Sunday night, as I thought he might. But the group did a stellar set of mostly Jordan-penned originals from their new "official bootleg CD," which includes a live concert recorded at the Great American Music Hall and a few old Groovies covers.


The famously balding Jordan, sporting a wig, somehow managed to make his Dan Armstrong plexiglass guitar sound exactly like George Harrison's guitar on the original "Tax Man."


"Bleeding amazing, that," Wilhelm commented, adopting a British accent.


Their set also featured "Make My Bed," by the Down Under Beatles, The Easybeats.


Mike and Cyril joined the Plimsouls at the end of their excellent set played to a sold out audience of 350 mostly younger people, who probably don't remember the Charlatans.


But the last time I saw Wilhelm open for Case, who was then playing solo in SF, the audience screamed "Charlatans, Charlatans," repeatedly, something you don't hear in Lake County.


But this crowd was no less enthusiastic for the reunited Plimsouls and friends. In fact, I've talked to a surprising number of younger folks who remember the original Plimsouls.


When Jordan and Wilhelm joined the reunited band, they brought the house down with covers of the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Reed, the Groovies' classic, "Jumpin' In The Night,' and even "The House of Blue Lights," sung by the Kaiser hisself.


Before the show, I asked Mike if he was going to do Chuck Berry's duckwalk, something I've seen him do a few times. He didn't and he also didn't say why.


Maybe, he's just saving the best for Lake County.


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Last Updated ( Sunday, 18 February 2007 16:37 )