“Greenpeace is beautiful and you are beautiful because you are here tonight … you are not on a death trip; you believe in life; you believe in peace; you believe in now.”
The late Irving Stowe, co-founder of Greenpeace, addressing the audience at the initial Greenpeace Benefit Concert 10/16/70
Here’s one for the Christmas stocking of everybody you know who gives a shit about the planet we live on, folks. No fooling.
Available only at www.amchitka-concert.com, sales of Amchitka, the 1970 Concert that Launched Greenpeace will help fund future projects by the international conservation organization. On top of that, you get to hear two CDs’ worth of previously-unreleased live music by Phil Ochs, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell. If the past year’s Woodstock nostalgia got you misty-eyed for the days of your youth – or made you wish you’d been old enough to have been a part of it – here’s a wee chance to actually do something good, hippie boy, and enjoy some good music while you’re at it.
A quick history lesson: the night of music documented on Amchitka was the first major fundraiser for the then-fledgling Greenpeace organization (originally formed as the Don’t Make A Wave Committee). Their goal: to raise enough money to charter a rusty old tub of a halibut trawler and sail the thing to the Aleutian Island of Amchitka to protest the US underground nuclear bomb testing being held there.
The concert wasn’t the work of a Bill Graham or a Michael Lang. Irving Stowe, a former trial lawyer, peace activist, and music freak in his mid-50s launched the concert from his living room – literally. (It was the stories of sea otters washing up on the Amchitka shores dead with their eardrums ruptured that drove Stowe over the edge.) Once Stowe got it in his head that the way to come up with the funds for the Amchitka voyage was a concert, he simply started writing letters. Joan Baez couldn’t make it, but sent a check for $1000. Fiery protest singer Phil Ochs signed on. Canada’s own Joni Mitchell agreed (covering the cost of her piano), then asked if James Taylor could play a few tunes, too. The concert, to be held in Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum, was a sell-out. Not bad for a first-time organizer.
The Amchitka double-disc set begins with some passionate remarks by Stowe, followed by Phil Ochs and his guitar. Though it’s hard to write about Ochs without using the words “tragic” or “troubled” (he eventually hanged himself in 1976 at the age of 35), he was sounding strong at the Amchitka concert. (Be prepared, boys and girls – this is truly classic old-school protest singing/folk journalism. There are few arty attempts to leave any part of the stories to the imagination – just many, many verses.) Ochs comes out swinging, ramming his way through “The Bells” with a heavy-handed percussive strum that almost doesn’t want to give up even after the song has ended. Ochs doesn’t linger between tunes, letting the lyrics do most of the talking. He mutters a few barely-audible intros like “Here’s a song about the dangers of show business” or “Here’s a song about the military” and then flails away into the next number before the applause for the last one has barely ended. Caught in a limbo that was never-quite-Seeger and never-as-cool-as-Dylan, Ochs could stir the souls of an audience when he was on his game. By the time Ochs tears through songs like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Rhythms of Revolution,” and “Joe Hill,” the crowd is his. Listening to the performance now, you have to wonder if he even heard their roars. Ahead of Phil Ochs lay six more years of bizarre behavior, dope and booze problems, and, eventually, homelessness – but he walked off the stage at Amchitka a hero.
James Taylor takes the stage next, loose and casual in manner, but tight in arrangements. Taylor focuses on tunes from his Sweet Baby James record (which turned platinum the week of the Amchitka concert) and the upcoming Mud Slide Slim album. Whereas Ochs appealed to the crowd’s activist side, Taylor makes ‘em feel like they’re in one big living room, hanging loose and mellowing out after a big meal and a good smoke. Tunes like “Carolina In My Mind,” “Blossom,” “Riding On A Railroad,” “Sweet Baby James,” and (of course) “Fire And Rain” all get the unmistakable JT finger-picking treatment, while the man himself sounds like he’s having fun and grateful to be there.
Disc Two is all Joni Mitchell – and rightfully so. Chock full of energy, she turns the night into a party, wasting no time by barrel-assing into “Big Yellow Taxi,” which jams into “Bony Maroni”. (“This is one of my favorite songs from those YMCA dances I used to go to back in Saskatoon,” she says, laughing that crazy laugh of hers.) The queen of open tunings, Mitchell’s guitar playing drifts from the chugging rhythms of the opener to the easy bubbles of “Cactus Tree”. When she digs in and just lets fly vocally, it’ll make you grin and shake your head – and when she bobbles the lyrics a little on “For Free,” she just tosses it off with a giggle and tells the audience, “Sometimes this song gets kinda hard to sing … let me just putter around here for a minute.” (She works her way around the keyboard of the piano to get a running start and then aces the vocal on her next pass.)
Mitchell lets “Carey” slide gently into Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” inviting Taylor back onstage after she does a couple of verses. This is no polished/choreographed/make-believe spontaneous moment: Mitchell treads water with a chunky strum while the sound crew gets Taylor mic’d up. (The contrast between the two guitars is dramatic when he joins in, but it works well.) And just in case you had any doubts about the authenticity of things (there were no “take twos”), the tape runs out during the show-closing sing-along of “The Circle Game,” leaving you to marvel at the power of song – and the memory of a time when it seemed a lot easier to make things happen.
Buy it for the cause; buy it for the music; buy it for both. Amchitka – the 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace is one of those time capsules that everyone should have.