Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

Days of Bread and Roses Print-ready version

by Joe Flower
Berkeley Monthly
September 7, 1978

click to enlarge

The crowd's hurricane roar bursts over the stage. They are standing, whistling and stamping their feet as little Kenny Rankin finds his way off the vast stage for the third time. He has returned for two encores, but this time drops into the cool twilight of the stairwell, alone, clutching his guitar. In the quiet under the stage he sinks onto a couch and sighs. "Jesus," he says, "my ears are burning. That crowd, that applause... They were so quiet while I played, I wasn't sure they were with me. Then I stopped, and they just blew me off the stage. It was beautiful. I was embarrassed." He lays his guitar gently into the soft velour inside its aluminum case."And to think Mama always wanted me to sing like Pat Boone..."

Upstairs, David Bromberg takes center stage. The crowd greets him with a roar, and he gets down to business. This is the Second Annual Bread & Roses Festival, three days at UC's Greek Theatre, and it looks easy. For most of the musicians there is something particularly fine and happy about this performance. It is Joni Mitchell's first in four years. Mickey Newbury, the great Nashville songwriter, appears nowhere but here in Mr. Hearst's concrete bowl.

The atmosphere is stronger than that normally generated by a hungry, restive audience, a strong lineup, and a good cause. The ease and spontaneity, the surprise and delight seem as natural, as effortless and unexplainable as the opening of a crocus.

But this apparently effortless event was constructed a piece at a time over six months.

It was four years ago when Skip Henderson brought his cousin Mimi Farina to play at the halfway house where he worked. And Mimi got an idea. She called a friend, and the friend brought over a typewriter. They brainstormed. They typed up a brochure. She called people she knew. She went on KTIM-FM and talked about what she was doing. She said she needed a volunteer secretary, and one showed up.

The idea was Bread & Roses.

The concept was to bring performers to the shutaways in institutions—by now, some four hundred performers to scores of hospitals, jails and convalescent homes. A troupe of jugglers called the flying Karamazov Brothers dazzles a disabled children's ward. Santana jams on "Oye Como Va" forty-five minutes in the Soledad yard. A guitarist yodels at the wheelchair patients of a convalescent home audience and they yodel back. A performer convinces the guards at the San Bruno jail to open the cell for one prisoner for a few minutes—they let him into the hallway to do his soft-shoe routine for the other prisoners. It is a difficult business and a kind one. It is a business made of emotion. "What Bread & Roses brings to institutions," Mimi has said, "is one hour of freedom, timelessness, and fantasy."

"If I had the inclination to write," Mimi tells an office visitor at Bread & Roses in Mill Valley, "I would write about what motivates people." For four years she has been coming to this office every day as if there were a clock to punch. A spider plant hangs by the window. A vase of flowers brightens the desk by the antique radio. Messages, visitors and calls stream through the neat, spare room. Marilyn Gazanoy, the office manager, wants to know what time she can talk to the man from KGO. A producer from Vancouver is on the phone, giving Mimi a schedule for her concert. It's too tight, it will have to be changed.

Mimi is the executive director of a social service agency, and is also an artist with a considerable following trying to revive her career.

"It's schizophrenic, sure," she says, "but name me someone who isn't. I do both of these things, and I take them both seriously."

Today, three weeks before the Festival, she has a cold. Maybe her Vancouver concert will have to be canceled. Last year the Festival snowballed, picking up acts and free publicity in the final weeks. This year the snowball hasn't begun yet. Bread & Roses has sunk $80,000 into the Festival. If it collapses, there won't be a dime left to run the office. Rick comes in to ask about the re-formed Peter, Paul & Mary. She promises to call them, then she dials her agent.

When the oil crisis forced the price of vinyl up, the music industry dropped all "marginal acts." To A&M, that meant Mimi, among others. "I tell my audiences that. I tell them that makes them a peripheral audience." Diversity, it seemed, had become too expensive. "They told me they could only do solid acts, like Peter Frampton or Donny and Marie."

After a number of tries, she recently landed a contract with CBS Records for a solo album. "The producer said, 'Do you want a hit? If you can tell me that you want a hit, I think we can do it.' But I couldn't. I told him that I'd love to hear myself on the radio, but it's not the aim of my life. I don't think they wanted me. They wanted something they could package. If things got really difficult I don't know how far I would bend. I've got to make a living. But this time I wouldn't bend far enough."

The album would have been called "More Than A Charitable Act."

"I don't think this is unusual. I think that anyone who is up against the difference between art and making a living has that desire. If everything worked out perfectly and I got everything I wanted, I would still be with Bread & Roses. Because this is where it all comes together for me. As far as I'm concerned, Bread & Roses is music used to its best advantage."

Mimi Farina is the soul of Bread & Roses. She and the organization have molded one another for four years. They breathe the same air, and it is this air that makes the Festival, according to many in the business, "the most important acoustic gathering in the country."

A week before the festival, Rick Foster, the Executive Producer, is trying to talk about this feeling with the dozens of people who have volunteered to take tickets, usher and sell programs. Most know what he means. Many of them have performed in the hospitals and prisons. Others are friends of the staff. "Usually," Foster has mentioned, "volunteers are the pits. But ours are like family. We know all of them and they work hard." Now he is telling them that the paying public will be frisked for alcohol just inside the gate by security guards. "It's your job, when you show them in, to counter that impression. Be welcoming. Be helpful. I could wax political and about the spirit of nonviolence..."

"Just call it warmth," says Mimi.

Says Foster, "We're not Bill Graham Productions." Foster wears jeans and T-shirts, and he doesn't shout. But he respects Graham, and the root of his success is the same as Graham's: a vast and dogged attention to detail, a fierce courtship of artists and resources, a careful martialing and protection of key personalities. If Graham is the spirit of rock-and-roll power, Foster is a different spirit. Bread & Roses suffuses the Festival not through some magical osmosis but through months of calculated decisions. Foster masterminds the translation of a fragile human spirit of cooperation to the stage.

Foster can be tough in the pursuit of gentleness. A month earlier, he has just put down the phone after a twenty-minute discussion with the Festival's lawyer. "Never give a benefit without a good lawyer," he says. "The tax questions, rights and permissions, contract problems—they're unbelievable." The next call is to a performer's manager. The performer is an important one, one whose name will help sell tickets. The manager is being resistant, asking for a certain billing, for first-class airfare and so on. Foster responds, "Let me just tell you, it would be professionally ideal for your client to be on our bill. But I would just as soon drop him as deal with any ego-tripping."

Foster calls an acquaintance, an entertainment interviewer with a local network affiliate. He tips him off that the "name" performer may be coming to town, and suggests that he might get an interview if he called now, before the performer's schedule was firmed up. The interviewer thanks him for the tip. Stick and carrot are point and counterpoint, persuasion and the promise of publicity."I don't think of it as manipulation," he says later. "I'm just pointing out to the managers what is in their best interest."

The courting of the artists goes on constantly, right into the week before the festival. A month before the gates open, the list of "Maybes" includes Jackson Browne, Phoebe Snow, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson. No matter how good the show is, names like these will be needed to sell the twenty-five thousand tickets that would fund Bread & Roses for the year.

Ten days before the gates open, Mimi walks into Marilyn's office and announces with a small frown, "We just got a definite 'no' from Peter, Paul and Mary." Their manager doesn't want to cut into the audience for a performance in Concord the night before the Festival. Now the "Maybes" on Foster's board are Joni Mitchell, Boz Scaggs, Neil Young, Steve Stills, Van Morrison and Herbie Hancock. And the "Maybes" are close to signing. Jeanne Bogardis holds up a thumb and finger half an inch apart. "That close."

Tom Lapinski, looking up from his staging notes, corrects her.

"Well," he says, "some of them are..." His thumb and finger are three inches apart. "Don't break out the Grand Marnier yet."

Two days later, Rick announces with satisfaction that "Al Stewart is definate, and Herbie Hancock is almost there." He pulls all the cards from his bulletin board and starts shuffling the lineup, spreading the cards on the floor. It's a touchy task. Can't put the ballad singer on after the rock-and-roller Dirt Band. Bromberg's best on the same day, he'd like to play with them. Got to keep 'em balanced. Got to remember people's quirks. One singer is a problem: if he's on top early, he won't be lubricated enough and his act will suffer. If he's on late, he'll need a guide dog to find the stage.

Tom Lapinski throws Al Stewart's "Year Of The Cat" on the cassette player and joins Rick on the floor. Lapinski is assistant produce and factotum, a fullback with floppy blond hair.

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute," You've got ten acts in one day. That's insane."

"We'll have to beef up that heatstroke staff," says Rick.

"Yeah, we'd have to put up a sign that says, 'No refunds for the dead.'"

Foster later says, "What we are doing here is something like a stew, an emotional and artistic stew. Every detail, every addition, every spice has to be right."

Two days before opening, the stew has begun to bubble and hiss, and the $80,000 suddenly surfaces— eighty rooms at Berkeley's most gracious hotel, limousines, catered meals for the backstage bunch, and a stage lined with fresh carnations. The Pine Street Bakery cookie monster goes berserk and spits out sixty-eight dozen oval cookies that won't fit the Pine Street jars. Give 'em to Bread & Roses. Set 'em out backstage. Get flowers for Joni Mitchell. Find a motel that will take the emcee's four large dogs. Details.

The Persuasions hit town first, five black crooners and one thin white manager named Ira. It's time for a drink and a little shopping. Jerry's looking for something in the line of an icecream silk suit with stars and half-moons. Dropping through the lobby, they pick up on someone at the front desk worrying about Joni "and her entourage." Jayotis Washington snaps his fingers and rolls the word off his tongue: "On-two-raj. Hey, we got no on-two-raj.'!

"Just Ira here," says sleepy Sweet Joe Russell.
"No valets," says Jimmie Hayes.
"Nobody to carry our coats," says Tubo.
"Hey, Ira'" says Jimmy.
"Now, wait a minute," says Ira.
"Yeah, Ira," says Jayotis.
"Just a minute here."
"Coats, guys, give 'em your coats."
"Ira complains, "You think I look like Rochester?"
"You our on-two-raj."
Nine years on the road, the Persuasions say it just gets better. "Like a five-way marriage," says Jerry Lawson.
"Yeah, 'cept we all nuts," says Sweet Joe.
They roll on through Berkeley. A wino slouched in a doorway bop-diddy-wops at them. "Bop diddy-wop-shebop," he says and smiles with all three teeth. "Bopa-doo"
"Bop-a-bip," says Sweet Joe. "Bop-a-loo." And they break loose with five-sided freelance scat in the street. People watch. A kid tugs Jimmy Hayes' coat.
"Who you?" the kid asks.
"We the Bop-a-do kids," says Jayotis.
"No, who you?"
"We the Persuasions."
"You ain't no 'suasions," the kid insists.
"How you know we ain't?"
"'Suasions wear suits!"

"Hey, let's get this cat a bottle," says Tubo. Moments later he is back from the store with a bottle of Mouton-Cadet.

"What's this shit?" croaks the wing. "This ain't no mad dog! Didn't they have any Ripple?"

Across town, Libby Cotten watches herself on TV. At eighty-five she still makes her living on the road. The woman who wrote "Freight Train" at the age of twelve told a friend recently, "I got to do something. I can't work. Folks pays me to do what I enjoy doin."' When her face fills the TV screen, the real Libba squeals like a happy child. The TV Libba sings, then talks. Her name is on the screen—"Elizabeth Cotten," it says, "Folk Legend." "Oh," she laughs, watching herself, "what they mean by that?"

By Saturday noon, one hour before opening, the understage rooms bubble with string music. David Bromberg rolls through "Lost Highway" while a sideman strings up. Mimi slides into "Darlin"' with Banana and Peter Marshall. Her voice is light and cagey, spiced almost to country. Jim Rothermel grabs a soprano sax and lays in a top line.

Upstairs, National Public Radio's taping crew gets the word, "Crank up, we're ready to start."

When the show is on its way, Nashville songwriter, Mickey Newbury tells Tim Hardin, "Willie Nelson's right up in Tahoe, you know, Tim."

"Yeah? Let's get him down here."
"Let's kidnap him. Drag him down here."
"He'd love it."
"Four guys and a van," says Newbury. "Hogtie him. Sack over his head."
"He'd love it. He'd dig every minute."

Out front the audience begins to feel the sun. A few female devotees foresake their tops. Others observe the letter of the law. The stoic audience suffers alcohol searches and overcrowding, surrenders to six hours on the concrete through eight acts or more, through long set-up breaks punctuated by the weak ad-libs of the Firesign Theater emcees. But they cheer powerfully. They sing along. They hold hands and sway to the music. They dance, they yell for songs they want. They are alive to the moment.Backstage no one needs stoicism. Not at this festival. The masseurs try to work on each performer before they go on. A seat, a lunch, a guitar string or tuning device—you name it someone's donated it. "The supper's great," says Bob Gibson, "and I love singing for it." Gibson knows festivals. He founded Newport Folk and discovered such talents as Phil Ochs, Judy Collins and Joan Baez. "I've never been at a festival before this," he says, "where there wasn't at least someone who was absolutely vibrating with tension."

The performers come to help Mimi. They come to see old friends. And they come for the music. "Sometimes on the road," says Odetta, "you get the feeling that you're a frill. Coming here reminds you of that center thing that you dedicated yourself to when you first went through the pain of learning a C chord." While she is speaking, Wavy Gravy strolls up with a wig and a false nose that squirts. Bingo! Wavy's legendary aim catches her in the face.

"Its crazy," Joni Mitchell tells her engineer. "There's a weird atmosphere here. Last night I was at the front desk in the hotel. I was looking for Tim Hardin. I was supposed to have a drink with him. And the desk man sort of put me on hold. Somewhere someone was singing, 'Why do fools fa-a-all in love?' sliding up on those little high notes like that. So I started singing the other part. The Persuasions and some other people were headed for the elevator, and they started doing the other parts, some bop-she-ba down on the bass and all that. Tim shows up and sings, 'Hi, there, Joni.' And I sang, 'Hel-lo, Tim'' And we kept it up. We sang our orders and the waiter sang back. 'White wine, white wine!'"

For four years Joni has avoided the concert stage. Now she wants to showcase her new album. She has brought an accompanist by the name of Herbie Hancock to deal with her new Charles Mingus material. An hour before she is to go on she tunes nervously downstairs with a pick borrowed from a writer. She is small, almost crumpled, as worried, maybe, as the second angel in a Christmas play. The union hands rearrange the stage, reset the mikes, resettle the Steinway so that she will see Herbie's hands. The audience grows restive and baits the emcees in the growing dusk. It is late, it is cold, and it is getting dark. There are no lights. Massaged and glowing, riding four-inch heels, Joni strides on stage. The backstage empties to watch. Only the instrument guard stays downstairs. Babies are shushed and the papparazzi go nuts.

She croons into the growing dusk, a sculpture of her sound, the face taut-boned, the hair pulled into tiny braids that ring her ears. By the end of her short set she has already disappeared into the stage dusk.

The bowl rings with the listeners' pleasure and disappointment. They want more. They've waited all day. Night is falling. There are no lights.

But by Sunday Rick and Mimi can stare up at the bowl and calculate the news on the half-empty concrete speckled with people. The Festival won't carry the year for Bread & Roses. Maybe it's the Raiders' game. For this crowd? Maybe it's Graham's Day On The Green across town. Maybe it's the Renaissance Faire. Maybe Sunday lost to Saturday.

Still, the expenses have been met. "There's a point," says Mimi, "when you have to let go I'll just go with the music. Next week I'll worry about money."

The Festival loosens up. Joni Mitchell is the French-cut khaki kid doing the bump with Odetta, and backing Tim Hardin's roaring blues with faked falsetto harp licks. The Persuasions' Jerry Lawson, jumps from the stage and pulls the audience around him, singing the gospel. "We love to perform," he has said. "To hell with that star trip. But there's no high like taking the stage and making people happy. Everything in between is just waiting."

"Yep," says Tim Hardin, "I'd as soon sing as eat."

The piano tuner was more extravagant: "Music flies to the core, right to the core. You know that if you pull the spirit apart, it's just pattern, music inside. No one with any sense can choose right between music and food."

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Comments on Days of Bread and Roses

Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.

You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.

Facebook comments