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FOG! Chats With Mark Voger, Author of ‘Groovy : When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture’

Groovy is the new…well… groovy book from TwoMorrows about hip and psychedelic pop culture in the flower power era of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. These were my formative years! I grew my sideburns long in 6th grade and wore (candy) love beads and a peace symbol pendant and a fringed suede vest with my turtleneck and bellbottoms.

Yes, like so many others, I was a wannabe Brady.

Groovy author Mark Voger was, too!

FOG!: You were in New Jersey, I was in Kentucky. You were drinking Pepsi, I was drinking Coke. You were in Catholic school, I was in public school. My dad was ex-Army, yours ex-Marine. Other than those and other specific details, though, your experience is pretty darn close to what 11-year-old me was going through in 1970! Complete with black light bulb!

Mark Voger: In writing about life experiences, I’ve always believed: The more specific you are, the more universal you are. Like, when Denzel Washington performed Fences by August Wilson, an audience member came up to him and said, “I didn’t know August Wilson was Polish.” Wilson was writing about complicated father-son relationships he has known and observed, but by telling the truth, it strikes a chord across every culture.

I’ve been anticipating your book for some time now. Based on some of the dates you give for your interviews, you’ve been working on it for some time, as well. When did you get started on it and what made you decide to do this particular book?

I’ve spent my career as an entertainment writer for newspapers and magazines.

I turned pro in 1978 when I was 19. I was especially keen to speak to folks who created the culture that I remembered growing up, in any medium.

So, I went after rock stars and actors and comic book artists and anyone I could.

The interviews all added up. Some of them go back 25 years, but I was doing fresh interviews up until the last hours, literally. I always I.D. the year of a given interview, which I think is important for the reader.

Groovy is one of five or six book ideas that have been rattling around in my brain.

After my previous book, Monster Mash, did well, TwoMorrows green-lit Groovy. It took about 14 months to put the book together, with a few more months of post-production.

I particularly like the fact that this isn’t just the story of those times but also the story of you IN those times. So often people remember the pop culture but forget the fact that the establishment was still in charge and there were more short-hairs around than long-hairs. Since the groovy era has no rigid definitions, there were obviously a lot of things that could have been included. What are some of the people, places and things you had to leave out simply for lack of space?

There are a few, with some regret. I didn’t cover the TV Batman except for just a mention of the Batusi in the TV section. The show was really groovy and colorful, but for me, it was more “op art” than the proper psychedelia that followed. With the Beatles, I pretty much start at Rubber Soul. I tried to stay on point. It was a huge era to try to capture.

In Groovy, there’s some discussion of the difference between the words “groovy,” which is subjective, and “psychedelic,” which is objective. My mantra was: When in doubt, when something’s on the chopping block, lean toward the psychedelic. That’s where I drew the line. As far as the first-person stuff, I thought it was important to talk a little about who I was and where I came in, so you knew where I was coming from. I was too young to be a hippie, but wished I was one.

What type of music did you grow up listening to? I knew who the Beatles were from the cartoons and all the jokes about them on TV but I didn’t really discover their music for myself until just before they broke up. Around our house, my mother liked the Easy Listening radio stations so I got lots of Herb Alpert and Andy Williams. On TV, I loved the Monkees! Probably my first pop/rock favorites. You?

Well, that was the great thing about AM radio!

You could hear it all. I got a little transistor radio when I was in the second grade. I used to sleep with it on my pillow, pushed against my ear, at a real low volume so my parents didn’t know.

Blavat appearing on The Monkees

I remember listening to WFIL 56-AM in Philadelphia, hearing Lady Willpower by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and Lovers’ Concerto by the Toys on that little radio.

The first time I heard “Crimson and Clover” was on an afternoon TV dance show called Jerry’s Place, hosted by the great Philadelphia DJ Jerry Blavat, the “geator with the heater.”

Tommy James came on and lip-synched that song, and I was a goner.

When I was 11 in 1969, I was in a fish-and-chips shop in Dublin that was frequented by teenagers, and I remember Honky Tonk Woman by the Rolling Stones playing on the jukebox.

In my own recent book, The Best of Booksteve’s Library, I wrote of Laugh-In, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was a show that I have to say I kind of enjoyed and yet never truly grokked. I watched it fairly often as a child because it was the hip thing to do but it always left a kind of a bad taste in my mouth afterwards. It wasn’t dirty—not even in a Benny Hill way—but it SEEMED dirty which was almost worse. “Sock it to me?” What the hell was that all about? Sock what? “Sock” sounds like “suck” which is dirty, isn’t it? Wasn’t it? Was it?? And I would never in a million years bet you my sweet bippy!!!!”

That said, nothing seems more nostalgic to me today than Laugh-In, although it’s clear that it was a bunch of mostly unhip people trying—and surprisingly succeeding!—to be hip! This is one of the sections where your own feelings give way to the cast member interviews. So I’m curious, who were YOUR favorites on Laugh-In? What was your take on the show then and now?

Laugh-In was wild, because we were Catholic school kids, but for some reason, our parents let us watch this show. So, we would be seeing stuff that the nuns at Holy Rosary School would never condone. Laugh-In always had double-entendre, and I got most of the jokes. That Dick Martin was a rapscallion. There were painted girls dancing in bikinis. It seemed very counter-cultural at the time, but as you said, it was really kind of lame. I don’t think the shows hold up. But I have such great memories of watching Laugh-In. I put on a Laugh-In skit for my Cub Scout troop. We loved Alan Sues as the sportscaster with the little bell.

And, of course, Tiny Tim.

Was there ever as unique a talent as Tiny Tim? Not really a question. Just an observation.

Tiny was one-of-a-kind. He was knowingly campy, but he was also really like that. A unique individual. I wanted him to be the cover boy for Groovy. I thought it would get a “WTF” reaction. Like, it would intrigue people. Thank God (TwoMorrows publisher) John Morrow talked me out of it.

A lot of the folks you talk to in the book are known as “difficult,” and yet you seemed to get some very good, atypical responses from most of them. Are there any of your interview subjects who gave you problems of any kind? Were there any folks you wanted to speak with but didn’t get to? If so, what happened?

I remember I asked Ginger Baker, the drummer for Cream, how he met (bassist) Jack Bruce. He flashed his ice-blue eyes at me and said, “Aw, shoot, d’ya want the whole story? It didn’t go bang-bang-bang, just like that!” But then he told me the whole story, bless him. When we were done with the interview, my wife Kathy, who was my photographer, came over with her camera to pose Ginger. She was a pretty gal. At the time, she had a bandage over one eye due to a home-improvement mishap. Ginger looked at Kathy and brightened up and said, very sweetly, “Have you been fighting?” So I saw both sides of Ginger Baker.

I was supposed to interview Keith Richards around the time of Talk is Cheap. I jumped through many hoops, but in the end, I only got three questions on tape in a crowded bar in Manhattan. Brian Wilson was a challenge to interview, but only because he’s, you know, a drug casualty. He was a very sweet person. The Brian Wilson interview in Groovy was cobbled together from four interviews we did between 2000 and 2012. I used the gold.

Movies were just starting to get groovy around the time I was allowed to go see them without adult supervision. The first one I ever saw on my own—age 9—was Yellow Submarine. You talk about a lot of the cool ones, all right, but how old were you and what was the first YOU remember seeing on your own? Were your choices different with friends than when going to the movies with parents? What was the first “adult” (as opposed to XXX rated) movie you ever saw?

I was always a movie buff. I loved James Cagney and Boris Karloff and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone. The first adult film I saw in the movie theater was Bonnie and Clyde, which my father took me to in 1967. That was real adult. I loved the ambush at the end, with all the bullets and blood. My dad probably thought it would be a gangster movie like The Public Enemy or something.

I remember really wanting to see Myra Breckinridge in 1969. It was rated X. I imagined all sorts of wicked things that must have been in that movie. I only saw it for the first time in the past year. It’s pretty tame, of course. But that Raquel Welch … va-va-va voom!

The first groovy movie I saw was called How to Commit Marriage (1969) with Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason. No one remembers this film. No one even realizes that it’s groovy, because no one saw it. I loved it then and I love it now. I mean, it’s terrible, but I love it.

The psychedelic posters always fascinated me. Victor Moscoso was the first artist’s name I learned for them and in the 6th grade, I had a Peter Max 3 ring binder at school! Did you have any particular favorites and were you ever inspired to make any psychedelic artwork on your own?

I wasn’t as sophisticated as you, Steve, learning Victor Moscoso’s name. But of course, I knew Peter Max, because he had his hands in everything. There was Peter Max cereal. You had a three-ring binder, my best friend in eighth grade had Peter Max jeans. The pants were yellow with red pockets. I absolutely tried to draw psychedelic stuff. I did a drawing of Tiny Tim surrounded by floating flowers that I gave him when he did a book signing at the Moorestown Mall in New Jersey. I bought psychedelic posters at head shops at the Echelon Mall in Voorhees, New Jersey. But this was commercial stuff, not the authentic posters from, like, San Francisco.

Comics books were my intro to grooviness. I started collecting in 1966 at the height of DC’s Go-Go checks (another sure thing button pusher to get me nostalgic today!). With the truly odd exception of Sekowsky, most of the old-timers were still making fun of the hip kids and counter-culture until the younger creators started moving into the business. Steranko’s style just blew me away! I got to meet him a couple of times over the years. What comics were you actually reading in the ‘60s and early ‘70s and have you had a chance to meet any of the folks you admired then?

I love the Go-Go checks era. The first DC books I ever bought had the Go-Go checks, so that’s all I knew. When they took them off around ’68, I was like: Where are the checks? You’re absolutely right: Mike Sekowsky’s artwork looked current and authentic. I remember Kurt Schaffenberger telling me that DC told him to buy the current fashion magazines for references to spruce up Lois Lane’s look. Nobody ever had to tell Sekowsky to do that.

What was I reading? Everything! Metal Men, Batman, World’s Finest, Flash, Green Lantern, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Dial H for H-E-R-O, Sugar and Spike, the 80-Page Giants, The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, the Marvel giants, Sad Sack, Muttsy, Sad Sack’s Funny Friend the Sarge, Hot Stuff, Creepy, Eerie. I loved it all. I was lucky enough to meet a lot of my comic book heroes: Kurt Schaffenberger, Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, John Romita, Joe Simon, Joe Kubert. It’s funny; I don’t usually ask interview subjects for autographs. But artists, I do. To have a vintage comic book signed by the original artist is such a thrill.

My own local headshop (in the basement of a staid, old, established bookstore) said they thought I seemed “mature” enough so they never hesitated to sell me undergrounds once I discovered them. They were all so divorced from my own reality, though, that it was like seeing things on another world. I’d never even seen marijuana but the Freak Brothers were my favorites along with Bode, Corben, and Bijou Funnies. How did you discover comix? At what age? And did they change your perspective on anything?

I caught up with underground comix in the ’70s when I was a college boy. My roommate had a lot of (Robert) Crumb and S. Clay Wilson and Justin Green and Spain. Once I discovered Crumb, that was it. My mind was blown. The guy is a genius. I saw Bode and Corben in National Lampoon and Heavy Metal. What’s not to love? All that stuff definitely influenced me. At ye olde Glassboro State College, we converted the art magazine into a Heavy Metal ripoff. We called it Airborne. I drew a comic of Jimmy Carter hitting Jesus over the head with a cross. I was getting all that Catholic school angst out, with the undergrounds as my fuel. We actually got in trouble for it. Me and the Airborne editor, a friend named Andy, had to meet with the college president. Andy was explaining to the college president what satire was.

Growing up in middle America the ’60s, I saw more black people on TV than in real life. All my white friends seemed to think African-Americans were cool, though! We would play Mod Squad at recess and I was always Linc! Your thoughts on how important the slow, subtle infiltration of mainstream pop culture by black performers in the groovy period was in the long run to the cause of civil rights?

That was a great moment, when Clarence Williams III and Heshimu were the coolest dudes on television. It seemed long overdue. I have distinct memories of the Civil Rights era. In 1966 when I was 8, my dad drove us down to Florida for a vacation, and I saw an outhouse behind a gas station in Georgia marked “COLORED.”

This was two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But I remember sensing that things were changing. I definitely believe that black artists on TV, whether they were musicians or actors or comedians, had a great deal to do with that change. It was a friendly invasion of the living rooms of middle-class white Americans. It started with jazz, continued with rock ’n’ roll, through Motown and Sly and the Family Stone. I can still hear the Supremes singing Love Child on the jukebox at the local ice cream parlor, which was called the Cowtail Bar. Art unites us.

I never knew anyone who went to Vietnam but we were always hearing in class about so and so’s brother or so and so’s neighbor being shipped off and that TV draft lottery scared me more than any monster movie ever did! If the war was still going on as I came close to draft age—and at the time, that seemed a real possibility—my generally conservative mother talked about looking into moving to Canada. Thankfully, the war ended two years earlier. The underlying theme of every single thing about the ‘60s remains Vietnam, whether folks want to acknowledge it or not. If JFK, say, had lived and had gotten us out of Southeast Asia in ’64, what do you think might have been different about the groovy years?

That’s like a science-fiction question. I’m not certain that the war wouldn’t have escalated under JFK. I have no idea either way. The whole thing was so tragic. The family behind us had a son in Vietnam. His name was Billy, and I drew a poster of him in front of a big American flag when he came back home. I agree that groovy culture was largely a response to the war. I remember the first time I heard Country Joe and the Fish sing “What are we fightin’ for” on the Woodstock album. Those lyrics! “Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was 12. My dad was a World War II veteran who admired Nixon. So I was really confused and conflicted. I was getting dangerously close to the draft age also. My father wanted us to go when the time came. My mother wanted us to go to college. It was scary. It was close. But you’re right — groovy culture and the Vietnam War were inextricably linked.

Like you, my parents weren’t happy that I bought Jesus Christ Superstar. But I only had the 45. Eventually I got my mother to come around from explaining the lyrics to her and I remember her trying to convince my dad it was okay. I’m not a religious person but I loved the music and saw the ‘90s revival onstage with the film’s stars. As you point out, it was only part of the whole Jesus movement of the time.

As popular as it all was, why do you think the movement withered away or at least shifted into kind of its own Christian pop culture? Was it pushed down by the hedonism of the ‘70s, you think?

I think the “Jesus people” movement faded when the hippies themselves began to vanish.

Several events signaled that the glory days of groovy culture were over: Altamont, the Manson murders, the deaths of Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, all at age 27. People cut their hair, put on “straight” clothes and joined the workforce.

Being a hippie just wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle, although some hippies never gave up the dream, certainly.

The Jesus people probably cut their hair but stayed in the church. I loved, loved, loved Jesus Christ Superstar.

Still do. I saw the first Broadway production in 1972, and then the Broadway revival 40 years later to the day. The Judas was better in ’72.

There is a book and movie called Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth. Do you think something similar could be said about the groovy age? Does grooviness really signify anything? Cheech and Chong may seem more authentic than Keith Partridge but in a way, they were just as manufactured. Is there a lasting legacy for the flower power days or are they destined to be remembered as a passing fad just like the flapper days of the ‘20s?

I think of groovy culture in terms of art first, and then ideals. The art is forever, I think. Young people still discover the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. But I close the book with musicians talking about the ideals of the period — Donovan and Arlo Guthrie and Ray Manzarek talking about the environment and the war. A lot of things that people fought for in the ’60s, the environment and Civil Rights among them, are still at risk today, which is so weird when you think about it.

So if nothing else, the groovy era can give us inspiration to push back. They used to say “Up the establishment.” Now we just say “Fight the power.”

Mark’s great new book hits shops this month and it’s a great trip! If you were there at all, this is one flashback you won’t want to miss!

Visit Mark online at MarkVoger.com/

 

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