My teenage garage band, via our bass player’s uncle, got invited to play at a mental
For the inmates.
Creedmoor Hospital had been a well-known asylum in the New York area for quite awhile. It had long ago entered the local lexicon as an alternate for the almost-Kleenex-genericized Bellevue, in such provincial New York declarations as “They should send you to Creedmoor” or “I’m gonna wind up in Creedmoor.” But now it was 1967, and there was a cultural/political/psychological stream of thought questioning the exact meaning of insanity in a possibly insane (cf. Viet Nam, racial strife, materialism, inter-generational suspicion) society.
We had already played at the NY World’s Fair, not to mention the opening of the very first eight-track tape store, so who were we to refuse one more oddball gig? Apparently this
was some kind of experiment to see what kind of effect we’d have, if any, in therapeutic — or even entertainment — terms on the locked-up and catatonic.
A few of us had recently gotten into the habit of getting high (on marijuana—cf. 1967, statute of limitations, we had medical need) before playing. In other words, we were feeling a bit crazy ourselves, which we were fine with, not a pejorative thought was thought. A couple of particularly sexy 17-year-old girls we knew came along with us, and as we approached the main building, inmates poking through their barred windows up above called down with suggestions, pleas & gestures that introduced me to a whole new level of drooling lasciviousness. We were weird, the place was weird, and unknown territories lay ahead. As we ducked into a bathroom, freaking out, my bandmate’s image blurted out to my image in the mirror over the sink, in the stoned parlance of the time, “This is insane!” The clinical truth, the obvious “duh!”-ness of his observation, quickly had us laughing like mental patients.
We did two shows. R.D. Laing would’ve been proud. You didn’t need a medical degree to see that the audiences were pretty far-gone. We began playing psychedelic folk-blues-rock. Patients who’d started out looking, at best, blank and dissociated started to respond almost immediately. Lots of smiles, then tapping hands and moving feet. We were later told that some of these patients hadn’t smiled, spoken, or moved on their own for at least six months. Before long, some of those who could get it together were up and dancing, and the really lucky men among them were dancing with the girls who’d come with us. It was a party! Madhouse Rock!
A male orderly started talking to us during our between-set break. Turned out he was an inmate too, though he seemed quite capable. He was a black man, younger than most of the others we saw there, who had managed to get sent to the hospital instead of jail after being busted with heroin. He told us that within the hospital he could still obtain just about any drug he wanted, and also that he could play a few chords on the piano and sing soul music. That was good enough for us — we invited him to sit in for a couple of songs.
Sure enough, when the second audience was wheeled in, our orderly piano player started singing tunes like “Respect” and “Knock On Wood”, and sounding really good. We had fun playing behind him, and the crowd was sure digging seeing the guy who collected their laundry or whatever belt out a few. As we continued on with our usual material, getting louder and louder as we were wont to do over the course of a gig, the energy level ratcheted up. Dancing, clapping, happy miracles were taking place all around us.
Some of the patients had relatives there for the festive occasion, standing off to the side, along with some of the doctors. As the place began to resemble a staging of Marat/Sade at the Fillmore, someone’s quite elderly lady relative, dressed in her best Margaret Hamilton-in-Oz outfit, decided this kind of tomfoolery was far too loud, far too much excitement, far too much in general. She started complaining about the volume, first to no one in particular, then to the doctors. As nobody seemed to be taking interest in her concerns, she started hitting one of the doctors over and over with her handbag, yelling “Make this stop! Make this stop!” She tried grabbing her related inmate, who wanted nothing to do with her and twisted away. So she went back to beating on and screaming at the doctors, and even escalated her righteous indignation during the comparative silence when we finished whatever tune we’d been playing.
The staff didn’t know what to do. They seemed on the verge of shutting the whole thing down just to shut this woman up, when the patients spontaneously turned against her. They began booing her. They yelled things at her. One man even went up and tried to wrest her pocketbook away from her while she was still using it as a weapon against the doctors. Pandemonium was breaking loose, as they’d say on the wrestling show on TV back then (named, oddly enough, “Bedlam From Boston” after another old insane asylum).
As much as I would’ve enjoyed seeing her jabbed with a needle containing something calming — maybe a valium-tipped blow-dart — we decided to play a couple of slower, softer, gentler songs to cool out the vibe while we tried to ignore this unofficial guardian of everyone’s sanity. It worked, too, except the girls we brought had a bit of a problem putting off the patients who wanted to slow-dance with them. Some of these guys looked big, potentially dangerous, and certainly horny. Then, when we knew our allotted time was almost up, we launched into a very loud, fast, long version of The Blues Project’s “Wake Me Shake Me,” all distorted guitar and screaming vocals. Heavy-mental music, no head banging. The place went wild, in just the right way, then when it ended everyone calmly — and happily, it appeared — got led back to their quarters.
And, unlike them, we were permitted to go home.