Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Remembering the Warehouse: Jessy Williamson

Posted By Google on Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 11:17 PM

Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Before scrounging for memories of the rock institution The Warehouse for this week's cover story, I sat down with filmmaker Jessy Williamson (above in the white T-shirt), who, along his crew (also above), is producing a documentary about the gone-but-not-forgotten venue. Warehouse founder Bill Johnston (during a separate interview) explained, "We didn't have it like Woodstock, which was such a big deal — they had so much footage. We had none of that stuff. I can't wait myself to see creatively what these guys come up with."

(Get in touch with Williamson if you have any photos, ticket stubs or memories to share.)

So, why the Warehouse?

When me and my cousin were growing up, and started getting into old '60s and '70s music, we’d always ask our parents, ‘Hey, did you every see the Doors? Did you ever see Pink Floyd? The Allman Brothers?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, at the Warehouse.’ So for a good portion of our youth, we were always hearing about the Warehouse. It had been torn down, so even as adults, it seemed like this mythical place. We didn’t know where it was, or what it was, or anything. Skip to two years ago, we got into the film industry, and last December, we were both in a gap. There was nothing shooting here, there was a writers’ strike, and we weren’t sure if they were going to up our tax benefits or whatever, so there’s no movies being shot. So I said, ‘we’re not doing anything, we need to do something on our own, especially if we’re going to make it in this business.’ Me and another friend of mine were sitting on our porch drinking whiskey, talking about music, and he just blurted it out, ‘Man, you should do a documentary on the Warehouse.’ I called my cousin, and he’s like, ‘Let’s give it a whirl.’ We thought we’d spend two or three weeks, interview some locals, and push it to PBS or WYES as a 30-minute thing. ‘Remembering the Warehouse.’

We thought we’d interview some local people, fans, put it together. That’s kind of how it was looking. The first guy we interviewed, Curtis Cutrell, we interviewed him and I think I had one other person who I had stumbled across, and interviewed him, and three days later I had 65 emails. He emailed somebody, then they emailed somebody, then they emailed somebody. I was kind of nervous about approaching Bill at first to see if it’s a legitimate thing. I think we did about 20 interviews at first and told my cousin, ‘Look, we got to get this guy.’ And from Bill, it’s been wide open. He had a list of the partners, people who used to work with. From that, some of the people that worked there have turned to be extremely wealthy, so a lot of this project has been able to move along through donations form the people who worked there.

There are still quite a few people in town?

They’re still around. Some still in the city, and I went to California to interview some people who moved out there. I went to Georgia and interviewed Red Dog, the roadie for the Allman Brothers and road manager during that time.

Have you drawn any conclusions as to how the Warehouse closed?

Some of the partners kind of split, like businesses tend to do after a few years. Even though they’re putting on all these awesome shows, it’s such a small market here, they were really living check to check. When The Who came, phenomenal band, not that many people came to see them. They ended up losing a ton of money, because you have to pay them whether people come or not. They lost a ton of money, and they were going to close, and then somehow Foghat got wind of it and came and played a show without getting paid so they could make some money. Then Don Fox became the sole owner of everything. And in the end, the reason is he didn’t want to double dip, where you charge the band for the promotion and you charge for the venue. And the Warehouse was getting old and falling apart, so at that point, UNO (Lakefront Arena) had opened up, State Palace had opened up, Municipal Auditorium had opened up, and you don’t have to worry about having a staff cleaning up garbage, legal responsibilities if someone breaks their foot or cuts someone with a bottle, and so they let the building go. It’s where Felicity meets Tchoupitoulas, and they moved Tchoupitoulas 40 feet from the river, so Tchoupitoulas runs straight over where the stage would’ve been.

As we got into the meetup I kind of felt like kids younger than me, 21 year olds, don’t even know what the Warehouse is, and if this story doesn’t get told, just here locally, then it’d be something in 20 years that nobody will even ever heard of. They’ll be like ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ It’ll just be gone. That’s when I really starting running with it. I was like this story really needs to be told. Plus, the more I got into it, back before in the early ’70s, there wasn’t this big tour machine. If a band was on tour, it was just ‘cause they kind of went on tour, it wasn’t backed by the record companies. Nothing was that strong back then. What the Warehouse became was this jumping off point to go from Filmore to Filmore. They would leave New York, play Atlanta, then the Warehouse, then Houston, and then back up to San Francisco. It became this little half circle that eventually became the tour circle that kind of changed everything and was a major stopping point in the ’70s.

It was a wild ride. Lots of great music. One of the coolest things about it, granted it did change once the whole music scene changed, once you get to the late ’70s early ’80s, it definitely kind of changed. That big part form ’70 to ’76 there was this real feeling of camaraderie. A lot of people have said they never saw a fight in there. They were all stoned out of their gourds, but everybody was just cool. It was a fun and safe environment. Of course it did change, but to go from having 3,000 to 4,000 people in this place sometimes two three times a week for six seven years and not ever really have a big incident at all is pretty amazing. Especially right here in the city, back then they weren’t really hippie friendly, and it wasn’t nearly as friendly as it is now. They also put out a magazine (In Your Ear!), and stuff in there about the city cracking down on hippies in the French Quarter and beating them and tossing them out because they didn’t want hippies lingering around. I think a very important part of the rock scene in New Orleans... you hear about jazz and blues but you never hear about this little rock scene that happened here. It’s the only place Bob Marley ever played when he was here. Doors last show, Pink Floyd… opening night you got Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac. The Clash played here, closing night the Talking Heads.

So what's the story with the Grateful Dead, when they first got here?

They got caught with weed in their hotel. In the song “Truckin’”. They were at their hotel on Bourbon Street. They get in the lobby and as soon as they open their door and sit down the cops come and go, ‘OK, you’re arrested.’ They didn’t even find them with that much. They did the same thing to the Allman Brothers. In both cases it was minor possession charges. But there was this big New Orleans task force to not let these crazy San Francisco bands come in and poison our youth with drugs.

The Allman Brothers story is much better: I went and interviewed Red Dog, he was the original first roadie, for 20 plus years. He’s got a giant hunk of hash like the size of his fist in his pocket. He and one of the other roadies are going up the elevator, step out, look down and there’s like 8 plain-clothes cops walking down the hall, and at every door, one of them is stopping. They’re like, in unison, BOOM BOOM BOOM. They get back in the elevator, stop off at a different floor, throw the hash in an ashtray, and continue down to the lobby, and as soon as they get to the lobby, cops are there, they arrest ’em. They didn’t have anything on ’em. They ended up beating the hell out of one of the Allman Brothers. Was it Gregg? Or was it another one? Well, they beat the hell out of one of ’em. They took ’em to jail, and John Simmons the lawyer gets them out of jail, and even thought they’ve been in jail all night, as soon as they got out — it was a tradition when they came here — they went to Audubon Park and played for free on the river. Even though they were in jail all night, after playing the Warehouse, then getting busted and going to jail, as soon as they got out, they called the hotel and told Red Dog to bring the family (what they called the roadies) and bring the truck and set everything up ‘cause they were still going to play in Audubon Park for free. Really cool.

The Warehouse was a huge starting point for them. I even found a ticket stub someone gave me that said Allman Brothers tour, they’re playing at the Superdome, and the name of their tour was The Warehouse Tour. They played there usually twice a month for about five years. They played there the most out of anybody. They played three New Year’s Eve shows. It was kind of like when they were starting and right when the Warehouse was starting. Just kind of a perfect mix.

How did filming begin?

It started with me, my cousin and a friend of mine. Aeron McKeough and Autumn Boh. Both of ’em are camera guys in the film industry here, and I work with camera and sound and production, so I got them and started with us three. Since they’ve been working a whole lot, so I’ve been working a lot with people I’ve met in the film industry. We just find people, give ’em a preliminary call, go to their house, pop a light and then just sit and talk for an hour, see what stories they have to tell. People are always emailing, saying ‘Hey, I got ticket stubs,’ or ‘Hey, I’ve got a picture of so and so.’

I imagine it'll be expensive, paying to have the rights to use all those songs in the film.

That’s the biggest thing we’re going to try and do. In January. January 30 is the 40th anniversary, and Harrah’s is going to put on a show. Tickets just went on sale. That’ll be two days, the 30 and 31, just like in '70 when it opened. Each night they’re going to show a 10-minute cut of the movie, and we’ll have a table there and anyone who’s interested can help us, donate, or get on the mailing list or have pictures or a great story to tell. So we’re still going to be shooting until the day to enter into the New Orleans Film Festival, which has been kind of our ultimate goal from the beginning, just to get it in.

The first estimate was something like 40 grand was what we would need, which at first seemed like an astronomical number, but a year later I really don’t think it’ll be that hard to get the money once I have an end product I can show, I can get a room of 40 people and show it to them. The thing is the fans and the people that work there, it meant to much to them. Really a groundbreaking thing. Henry Alterman, who owns Alterman Audio, his best friend, when he died had his ashes spread over where the Warehouse was. The place really affected a lot of people in this city, and to get the $40,000 I don’t think will be a problem. Once people see the story we want to tell, I think everybody will pitch in.

How'd you first hear about the Warehouse?

The first time I heard Pink Floyd, I was like, ‘Jesus Christ this is good. Dad, did you ever see these guys?’ He said, ‘Yeah, they came to The Warehouse, and they had this crazy sound system and it sounded like people were walking on top of the roof,’ and I swear to God, I thought my dad was just high for 30 years. Then as soon as I started talking to people about it, everyone had the same story. I talked to Bill (Johnston), they had what they called a quadraphonic sound system, where they could actually direct where the sound was coming from, and a lot of the people I interviewed were like, ‘Yeah, absolutely, you could hear the steps going around the roof.’ Of course, their truck ended up getting stolen with all their equipment while they were here, and they vowed never to come back for 20 years. I think they said they weren’t coming back for 25 years, and they didn’t come back until 1994. 24 years. The Grateful Dead played opening night, and they said they weren’t coming back for 20 years, and they ended up coming back something like 12 years later.

The biggest thing is meeting these people and seeing how much… it’s really something our generation never experienced as a venue. I grew up going to… I probably saw something like 500 concerts at State Palace since we were in 9th grade and had a driver’s license. We’d be able to watch Primus and Helmet. They used to play there religiously. It was just a venue. You go there, you give them a ticket, you walk in, smoke some cigarettes, jump around. Whereas this place, it had a pulse to it, a scene to it, a culture. They were having Wendesday shows, and Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday shows, and on off days they were doing all kinds of stuff. Organic food lectures, women’s birthing classes and Lamaze, healthy eating, there was just a whole lot going on there as opposed to being just a music venue. Really something I’ve never experienced ever. Usually you hand the guy your ticket, you walk in and then you leave. You don’t really care about the place — it’s just a couple walls and a ceiling. This really meant something, something we don’t really have anymore.

You see that with punk rock and DIY crowds, like something like the Iron Rail or Zeitgeist...

Imagine that but somehow they were pulling it off with a huge place, somehow continually getting these phenomenal bands in there. It’s unbelievable though. And those bands weren’t nearly that big back at that time.

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