April 16 2014 12:00 AM

A look at the '70s music scene that shaped a generation in Lansing

The Lansing-area music scene is booming. Venues like Mac’s Bar and The Loft pack in GenXers and Millennials weaned on grunge, pop and electronic dance music. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, local music had a radical, activist edge. 

Local bands Plain Brown Wrapper, Ormandy, The Dogs and Magic were part of an impassioned collection of groups that played free, outdoor concerts fueled by the discontent of their fan bases, made up mostly of Baby Boomer Vietnam War protesters. The demonstration concerts were more than a soundboard for bands to show off their licks — it was a massive movement that’s never been replicated. These are stories from the psychedelic, experimental rockers who gigged throughout the height of a turbulent, hazy chapter in America. 

War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” - John F. Kennedy.

In spring 1968, members of the band Plain Brown Wrapper loaded their guitars, keys and drums onto the back of a truck, hooked up their amplifiers to a generator and began a spirited half-hour jaunt through the streets of Lansing.

The emerging Lansing-based progressive-rock band was playing a parade-style gig that stretched down Michigan Avenue, ending at Grandmother’s, a hip music venue that became The Brewery and later the Silver Dollar Saloon. They had become the official campaign band for Pat Paulsen, a comedian best known for his Smothers Brothers appearances. Paulsen was running for president as a joke.

“He was a funny guy (with) a hip, deadpan humor,” said Chuck Sweitzer, lead guitarist of Plain Brown Wrapper. “We wrote a song for his campaign and performed it through the streets. We attracted quite a crowd. We got some attention for that.”

But that lightheartedness vanished on June 5, 1968, the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot. “After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, that was the end of that — it was no longer funny,” Sweitzer said. “The presidential campaign was not a source of humor after that.”

Innocence was lost in many ways during that tumultuous slice of history. While the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a thriving and lively era for the Lansing rock scene, hostile politics tempered the music, concerts and hippie style until the end of the Vietnam War. East Lansing, of course, was not alone. This music-fueled anti-war revolt was happening in college towns across the country.

Magic, a Lansing-based psychedelic-rock band, is best known for its cult classic album, “Enclosed,” released by Motown in 1969. Duane King (guitarist/vocalist) formed Magic after he returned from Vietnam, where he spent time in the hostile Demilitarized Zone.

“I came home from the war and tried to acclimate myself to not being in the jungle,” King said. “It was harder than I thought it was going to be. I thought I was going to die over there. When I did come home, I was pleasantly shocked. I was in a daze for a few months, then I finally decided I had to do something.” That’s when King moved from Cheboygan to Lansing and formed Magic. The band lasted from late 1968 to the fall of 1972.

“They’d have an anti-War protest in the park and they’d ask us to play,” King said. “These were unpaid gigs but they were fun to do. It was for a good cause and we were against the war. There was a lot of activity with protesting and music. That’s what it was like back then in many cities. They’d have a Vietnam protest and rock ‘n’ roll music.”

Magic had big shows at the Washington Street Armory and even the Michigan State University Planetarium, among other local spots. “We’d play Grandmother’s — that was a giant place,” King recalled. “We opened for major groups there, like Sly and The Family Stone and Paul Butterfield Blues Band — it held a lot of people. It was just full of college kids.”

James “Hoz” Hosley, guitarist/sound man for Plain Brown Wrapper, said local agitation over the war started with the students.

“It was going on around campus long before Lansing really got into it,” he said. “In the mid-‘60s, we wanted to look like the early Beatles. As the Vietnam War built up and students were marching in the streets, long hair was really getting long. The Beatles started wearing beards. John Lennon was doing his bed-ins with Yoko. It was a big deal — things were changing. There were political songs. We were looking for a shift away from situation normal. It was fucked up.”

When local bands weren’t playing local venues like Coral Gables, The Dells (on the north shore of Lake Lansing), The Stables (was across from Coral Gables), MSU's Union Ballroom or Hullabaloo (Deja Vu's current location), they’d support the cause and play free protest rallies on MSU’s campus. 

Each weekend, Valley Court in East Lansing was packed with students watching rock ‘n’ roll bands. Plain Brown Wrapper, which also included Van Decker (guitar, keyboards), Scott Durbin (keyboards, trumpet) and drummer Gary Story - among others, played as many rallies as possible. “We were very vocal about our anti-War sentiments,” Sweitzer said.

“When Nixon bombed Cambodia in 1969, they closed down MSU,” Hosley said. “Professors walked off, students left and there was a big concert we played that day. There were a lot of local bands playing free gigs. This was dragging people away from the typical social scene of going to the bar.”

‘We definitely had some jam band elements’

From 1967 to 1973, Plain Brown Wrapper toured Michigan in its 48-passenger bus, sometimes gigging as far west as Colorado. The band was known for its jazz jams, soaring vocal harmonies and Tijuana Brass-style horns. The Wrapper shared stages with Ted Nugent, Bob Seger and Alice Cooper; the group’s final concert was with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra on March 29, 1973. The busy band never released a proper full-length album.

“Many people have said Plain Brown Wrapper sounded like Phish,” said Dave Livingston, the group’s bassist/horn player. “We definitely had some jam band elements. There were times when we sounded like the Allman Brothers. One of the things we did was an a cappella version of ‘Maria’ from ‘West Side Story.’ We’d close with ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’”

Livingston said Plain Brown Wrapper was one of three big Lansing bands, which also included Universal Family (aka Universe) and Ormandy. “We were all friends, we knew each other and we all worked all the time,” he said. “But we typically didn’t play the same places at the same time.”

Universal Family, known for its flute and Hammond B-3 players, opened two shows for MC5 at Grandmother’s in 1969. Livingston said the band’s lead singer had an unusual style. “He’d beat the tambourine on his leg (and) we thought, ‘Man, he is going to have bruises,’” Livingston said. “What we didn’t know was he’d sown a steel bar on the inside of his pants.”

While many of the garage-rock bands of the mid 1960s phased out, some of the area’s popular ‘60s acts remained relevant into the ‘70s. “The Woolies, with Bob Baldori, was always in the scene,” Livingston said. “Bob got The Ones signed to Motown and had a long career backing up Chuck Berry.”

Local record producer/musician Glenn Brown, who played in Sonar Eclipse with renowned bassist Bill Laswell from 1973 to 1976, cut his teeth working at Lansing Sound Studio, home of Baldori’s imprint, Spirit Records.

“I started working there in 1972 when I was 15 years old,” Brown said. “The first record I ever mixed was the last record of The Ones. A song called ‘Dippin’ in the Well’ was the A-side. The B-side was this crazy version of ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ The original lineup of the band split up shortly after, in late ’72.”

The Ones and the Woolies were veterans when area groups like Ormandy, Magic, The Maxx, Mission and The Dogs were just taking shape. Ormandy featured vocalist Pete Wittig, Jeff Wittig (guitar), Bill Brown (bass), Bill Franco (drums) and saxophone player Tom Cartmell. Cartmell, aka Alto Reed, left Ormandy in 1972 and joined Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, a gig the flashy showman still holds.

‘Stuck in Sparrow’s Corner’

In 1970, Ormandy scored a single on Decca Records, the “Good Day”/“Sparrow’s Corner” 45. Pete Wittig, a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War, said the flipside was a reference to Sparrow Hospital, where he worked at the time. It’s likely the only reference to the local landmark on a major label record.

“I could not travel with Ormandy because I had to work 40 hours a week,” Wittig said. “I’d been working there part time, but bumping up to full time kept me from going to the war. There’s all this paperwork you had to fill out. You do two years of full time and then they give you a card (giving you) conscientious objector status. There were about 25 of us at Sparrow, mostly janitors. That was right at the time Ormandy was getting big and traveling, so I was caught in ‘Sparrow’s Corner.’”

Like their musical cohorts, Ormandy played many of the East Lansing rallies. “I really did not like that war at all, and I’m an Army brat,” Wittig said. “I’m not going over there to kill people. If you come to my country, I’ll defend my country with my life, but I will not go overseas and kill. I had to go to my draft board and confront them, which was very fun. Looking each of those old farts in the eye and saying, ‘I will not kill for you.’ I told them, ‘I’ll go work full time at the hospital’ … and they approved it.”

‘We were on the fringes’

Other local musicians were radical not only in their politics, but songwriting-wise, as well. Loren Molinare, guitarist/vocalist of The Dogs, said his raucous proto-punk band was far left of the dial and played faster than the rest.

“We stuck out like a sore thumb,” Molinare said. “We were kind of in our own little hoodlum, rebellious scene. Lansing’s scene was based around established bands like Plain Brown Wrapper — we were on the fringes, just came up on the south side of town. We were identifying more with what was happening in Detroit than Lansing.”

The Dogs relocated to the Motor City in early ’72. In the mid ‘70s they spent time in Los Angeles, where punk legend Sid Vicious jumped on stage and unsuccessfully attempted to join The Dogs on a cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But while The Dogs were in Lansing, they were also a part of the movement.

“We would do all sorts of rallies around Lansing,” Molinare said. “I remember once we got asked to provide music for some councilman at the Lansing Mall. We brought four stacks of Marshall Amps and put them in front of the fountain. Everybody was running out of stores to see what the hell was going on. We got kicked out after one song.”

The Dogs are still together and performed at the 2014 SXSW Festival. And while inclusion on iconic punk compilations like “Killed By Death” has propelled The Dogs into punk history, the band’s wild start was in Lansing. “We played high schools — like Catholic Central, Everett — but we really honed our act at the free concerts in East Lansing.”

‘It was scary to have long hair back then’

Not everyone was tolerant of the anti-war ideals and hippie fashion. “There were like-minded people, but it was hard to be a longhair back then,” Wittig said. “I remember almost getting hit by a car. We were walking down the street, a car veered toward us and a guy flips us off and yells, ‘Fucking longhair!’

“Outside a restaurant in Detroit, after an Ormandy gig, some vet grabbed me by the hair and started shaking my head. A cop walked by, fortunately, and broke up the confrontation. But it was scary to have long hair back then.”

Ormandy opened shows local shows at Grandmother's for major acts like Spirit and Alice Cooper. But, like Plain Brown Wrapper, the band got its start at Coral Gables.

“It was the first place you could drink,” Wittig said. “East Lansing was dry at that point. You could party in the frat houses but there were no bars that sold liquor except the Gables because it was like 20 feet over the city limits sign. We’d go out there and hear Rare Earth and just be blown away.”

After Ormandy broke up in 1972, Wittig went solo and recorded a folk record in 1975 — the year the Vietnam War ended. The free concert rallies became rock history.

“By the mid ‘70s there were less shows for local bands,” said Stephen Magnotta, of local band Magnotta. “By the latter ‘70s disco made it possible for the bars to replace live bands with a disc jockey. The era was over.”

As for Lansing’s rebellious years, Wittig is still proud of the ruckus he caused with Ormandy. “People would call you a coward, or chickenshit. I did not care,” said Wittig, who still plays in multiple local bands. “Ormandy would close our shows with ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ We’d get like 50 people on stage with us. That’s where I thought we did best. Playing for people was fun. Getting high and writing songs was fun, but protesting that war … I like to think eventually we got that war stopped.”

Other far-out '70s stories:

Where to buy records and threads:
Sounds and Diversions was a store that sold records, posters, it was a head shop. It was in Free Spirit, which was an odd, hippie department store on South Washington across from Knapp’s. It’s a big law firm now. They called it ‘A Community of Boutiques.’ It had a leather shop, import shop, clothing stores (and) a shoe store. It had a British feel, but because Sounds and Diversions was back there, it still had the hippie feel and their speakers could be heard throughout. You’d hear Jefferson Airplane, the Doors. That opened in the summer of ‘69 and closed in ‘74 or so.” – Dennis Preston, concert poster artist, member of the rock band Beast.

Where to mellow out, man:
“There was a basement club called Don Jon’s. It was small, but people loved to go there. People would throw pillows on the carpet floor. They didn’t have much room. It was more like a cavern down there. That was on Michigan Avenue.”
Joe Panessidi, drummer of Lansing power trio, The Maxx.

Goodman Free School and Ballroom:
“That was a fascinating place, an unaccredited hippie school in an old church building. They would have concerts with two or more bands almost every weekend as a fundraiser for the school. The neighbors were always trying to get the city to shut it down.” -
Steve Magnotta, Magnotta.

“In ‘71, we’d play the Goodman Free School on the north side. It was the alternative education school for people outside the Lansing Public School System. They would have the most bomb school fundraiser concerts in the auditorium. We’d pack that place. Gary Andrews was involved with the school – he was a great counter culture person in Lansing back then. He worked at ‘The Joint Issue,’ a counter-culture magazine.” - Loren Molinare, The Dogs.