Ellen Sander Interview: ‘Trips,’ Led Zeppelin, Plaster Casters, MeToo – Rolling Stone
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Pioneering Rock Writer Ellen Sander on the Joy and Terror of the Sixties Scene

The author’s newly reissued ‘Trips’ chronicles the “mystic catharsis” of the rock revolution. Forty-six years later, she reflects on everything from the Plaster Casters’ genius to her traumatic experience at a 1969 Led Zeppelin show

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 1969:  Large crowd of people, including people sitting on top of cars & busses, during the Woodstock Music & Art Fair.  (Photo by John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Ellen Sander's newly reissued book 'Trips' is an eyewitness account of the Sixties rock revolution. Here, the pioneering author looks back.

John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Name an iconic Sixties rock moment and Ellen Sander was probably there. Dylan going electric at Newport, the Who destroying their gear at Monterey Pop, Hendrix reshaping the National Anthem at Woodstock, the Stones recording Beggars Banquet, John and Yoko talking peace and protest during their Canadian Bed-In visit, the ominous early hours of Altamont. Sander recounts all this and more in Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties, a beautifully written, sweeping yet intimate account of America’s cultural awakening in that decade.

First published in 1973 and just reissued in a new augmented edition, the book traces rock culture from the birth of what Sander calls “teenism” in the Fifties — “a young, contained culture of which rock ‘n’ roll radio was the first indigenous tonic and weapon,” she writes — through the Greenwich Village folk boom; the rise of Dylan, the Byrds and the Beatles; rock’s first mega-fests; and the legendary excesses of touring life. Crucially, Sander, who wrote for Hit Parader, Vogue and other outlets, documents the culture from the inside, as a convert, not a critic. 

“It happened to us, inundated us, washed over us like holy water, gushed through us like a mystic catharsis and left us trembling on the brink of something awesome,” she writes of the feeling of communal energy she sensed at Monterey Pop.

Sander grew up in Queens, New York, captivated by early rock. She became immersed in the Greenwich Village folk community and, drawing inspiration from Tom Wolfe and Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy magazine, began pitching outlets such as Saturday Review on coverage of the scene taking shape around her. “I didn’t have the benefit of the Columbia School of Journalism or any journalism background whatsoever,” Sander, now 75, tells Rolling Stone of her craft during a March phone call from her current home in Maine. “I just wrote what was in my mind, in my heart and I did my research as best I could.”

ellen sander

Ellen Sander

Trips is mostly inspirational — and, as in her chapter on the Plaster Casters of Chicago, iconic groupies known for making casts of various rock legends’ penises — also massively entertaining. But the book doesn’t shy away from the dark side of rock life.  One chapter chronicling a 1969 U.S. Led Zeppelin tour starts as a triumphant road movie and ends as a horror film. Sander writes that, when she went to say goodbye to the group and their entourage on the last night of the tour, she ended up in physical peril.

“Two members of the group attacked me, shrieking and grabbing at my clothes, totally over the edge,” she writes. (Sander now specifies that the aggressors were John Bonham and a member of the band’s entourage.) ” I fought them off until [manager] Peter Grant rescued me but not before they managed to tear my dress down the back.”

Reached through a representative, Led Zeppelin declined to comment on the incident. Though in Mick Wall’s 2008 Zeppelin bio When Giants Walked the Earth, when asked about Sander’s account by the author, Page replied, “That’s not a false picture.”

Sander recently took some time to reflect on that traumatic night, which she calls “the nadir of that whole arc of experience with Sixties rock & roll.” She also discussed how what she calls the “feminine esprit” afforded her a unique perspective on rock culture, why she’s not willing to “throw out” art made by bad men and why she feels music has never been the same. 

In one of the chapter postscripts in the new edition of Trips, you write that “For every core rock fan there is an album and a track that lit their fuse and changed their life.” What was that for you?
I’d have to go back to “Twilight Time” and “Rock Around the Clock,” the music of my adolescence, which I think is what affects everybody’s emotions. The music that sends you off in your adolescence, while your hormones are budding, and your ideas about the world are changing, and your ideas about yourself are changing and your ideas about the sex you are attracted to are changing, I think that music just becomes a part of your emotional DNA.

But as far as a rock tune goes, I think [the Byrds’] “Mr. Tambourine Man” and this whole-folk rock thing — because I’d been into folk music all through high school. I lived in Forest Hills [Queens] so we would go to the [Tennis Stadium] to see Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. That really affected me, but when I heard “Mr. Tambourine Man” transfigured by rock & roll music, that really did uplift me, the way I described in print.

Reading this book, it was somewhat mind-blowing to think about how many now-iconic events you attended. One thing I really enjoyed about your portrayals of those scenes is that your enthusiasm is really unabashed — there wasn’t the sense that you were a critic, standing apart from the rock scene. Did you see yourself more as someone who was a part of it?
Yes, I felt that way, inasmuch as there was not a lot of mainstream coverage of it. So when I started out as a New York freelance writer in my early twenties, if I would approach Billboard or Saturday Review or mainstream magazines with ideas to cover this, at first they were kind of curious and then I would convince them that this was something that was important in culture, and popular with very many people. And they would take a chance, and then they would get an incredible response, which is what happened with Saturday Review. With my first piece — which was like a 10-page taxonomy of rock music, just kind of little vignettes of the groups — it was the longest piece they’d ever run, and it was the smallest type they’d ever used, and they got a barrage of letters. Some from college students saying, “Oh, we’re so glad to see this coverage of this music we’re so enthralled with,” but just as many from people saying, “I can’t believe you abased yourself with this.” I think I saved a page of those letters.

What year are we talking about here?
1967.

So you’re really approaching publications that didn’t have any sort of infrastructure in place to be covering this stuff.
Oh, yeah. I mean, they had an infrastructure, but it was all filled up with fine-art music and the remnants of big band, or whatever. Their idea of pop music or rock music at that time was just, “It’s for kids.” My attitude was, “Yeah it’s for kids, we’re important!”

You trace the rise of rock culture in real time, through Chuck Berry and on to Dylan, the Byrds, Beatles and many others. It seems like you really saw the shift coming as it was happening — and maybe even before. At the time, could you feel that change on the horizon?
Well, yes. I don’t think I could articulate it as a young teenager. I certainly felt it very powerfully. And I was a kid from a broken home, which was not that common a thing at that time. And I had a very troubled emotional and family life, and I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, and there’s a place I belonged: with the music, and my little radio. Then I obviously gravitated toward other people who were into it too. Once free of school — oh, boy! I went full blast.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I felt like I was a writer from the time I understood that concept. My first jobs before I was able to get any writing assignments were with publishers, not as a writer but as file clerks and stuff. So, yeah, I always did want to be a writer and when I fell in love with rock music and started meeting a lot of people — in the Village if they came through to play New York and everything like that — I just understood that it was a more important connection than just being a fan.

Did you have any kind of role model? Were there other writers around that gave you a sense that this could be a career?
I think when I read Tom Wolfe, I was attracted to this idea of bending language and having the rhythm of what you’re writing embody what you are talking about. In terms of that, he was a big influence and there were other rock critics publishing. I think that the big thing for me — when I went, “Yeah, I can do this, I’m going to do this” — was when I met Paul Williams and we had such an incredible simpatico. He was a couple of years my junior, and he was the publisher of Crawdaddy magazine. We became very, very, very close friends, which lasted for the rest of his life. When, I saw the power of what that kind of enthusiasm could manifest, that’s when I realized, “OK, I can do this — I’m doing it.”

And I starved for a while — it was kind of rough. I had a few jobs, none of which lasted very long. And one time when I was out of a job, and I was on unemployment, not quite able to make ends meet but still holding on, somebody, I forget who, suggested that I call Hit Parader. The editor asked if I would write a piece and so I wrote a piece and he called me back and said, “This is great. I’m going to pay you twice what I said I’d pay you.” He said he’d pay me 25 dollars — “I’m going to pay you 50 dollars, and I want two pieces a month from now on.” And that actually made it possible for me to scrape by. That was either late ’66 or the beginning of ’67. So, I wrote for Hit Parader through ’67 and ’68, maybe ’69.

There are so many incredible interviews and encounters with people in this book. Is there one that stands out, where you walked away from the conversation and felt that this was somehow the most special, or the most revealing?
Oh, the “most” question … You know, I can never answer that question: “What was the coolest concert you ever went to?” “What was the peak experience?” It all is kind of a blur of peak experiences. I felt like when I had 70 minutes with the Rolling Stones in the studio and Mick Jagger just kind of started talking … I told him he was like Lyndon Johnson. He pulled up his shirt to show me a scar where somebody had thrown a chair at a concert and hit him. That was really nice, and he knew what he was doing, and I knew what he was doing. 

And that breakfast with Eric Burdon, where he told me all those road stories, that was really nice. He was extremely generous. He was hungover, and we’re having coffee in the morning. We had an appointment he probably didn’t even want to get up for. And we were in some, I think Barney’s Beanery, or something, so that was really nice.

That interview with Cass [Elliot], it turned out that one of her good friends and engineers was Peter Granet, who I went to high school with. And we both had a crush on him, so we could kind of girl-talk.

I had a phoner with Linda Ronstadt that I thought was very revealing. And then when I wrote it up, she sent word back that she was very angry, that she never said those things.

Oh, wow …
I know!

What did you do in those cases? Presumably you had the tape. How would you respond?
You know, I had the tape, but I kept recording over it. I didn’t really have it, but I know she said it. 

One of the funniest things in the book was when you saw the Who at Monterey Pop, and when they starting smashing their equipment, you were worried they were actually destroying the stage. You earned the nickname “Chicken Delight” that night. What do you remember about that?
I had a press pass for the front and there was like a pit [in front of the stage], and I could go in there if I wanted to. And the pit was kind of raggedy wood, but you could get right up against the stage. And I couldn’t quite see over, so I’d have to put my feet on some boards that were sticking out, and I was high! People kept giving me drugs. And so when that [instrument smashing] started, I didn’t know. I saw people running around collecting microphones and stuff and getting stuff off the stage. I had no idea that bust-up was part of their act — that story hadn’t reached me [laughs]. And I was terrified. I thought they were just gonna keep going till they wrecked everything, and I might get hurt or people on the stage might get hurt [or that] they might close the festival down. I was really terrified.

When did it become clear that it was just part of the act?
When they finished, and they just kind of walked off stage and left the sizzling pile of equipment. They just kinda sauntered off stage. “OK.” I went like, “Oh!”

There were a lot of moments in the book, whether it was Dylan at Newport or at Woodstock when you were talking with Abbie Hoffman, when you sensed that a change was happening and you were open to it, but there was a certain faction of people present who were resistant to the change. Was there ever a time when you felt like you were on the other side of that, where a change was occurring that you weren’t on board with?
Yeah, yeah, when punk came along. I was completely baffled. I went, “What the heck is this? This can’t possibly be relevant, it’s unlistenable.” [Laughs]

I will say there’s a couple of exceptions. I mean, I read the other day that the Ramones didn’t think they were punk, but when they kept getting called that, they went along with it, because it had to do with their notoriety.

So with all the different movements that have come along since the Sixties, whether it was punk, or alternative rock, or hip-hop or any of it, has any of it grabbed you the same way? Do you still keep up with these things?
No, I don’t. Unapologetically I don’t. I feel like there was so much music that I got from that era that even if I started today, I couldn’t listen to it all for the rest of my life. And that remains the music of my heart and my lifeblood. I’m a rock & roll heart, but that’s the rock and roll that I belong to. And I also feel that it has never been equaled or eclipsed. To me, that was my biggest surprise, of the whole era, that I always believed from the moment I first heard it: “I don’t care what people say, rock & roll is here to stay.” And that turned out not to be true, from my perspective.

Every once in a while a song grabs me from the sidelines. I have a radio program — we have a little low-wattage station here in Belfast, Maine. And it’s mostly poetry, which is what my life is about now. But I did play “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on Tuesday.

So, regarding the Zeppelin incident, I only want to discuss it insofar as you’re comfortable with it.
I’m totally comfortable with any aspect of it, so just go ahead. It was a long time ago. I believe I have healed from that, many times over.

ellen sander trips

The account in the book is fairly brief. Could you set that scene for me and recall what you remember happening?
You know, we’d been on the road together. I’d been at recording sessions in New York and they had a date at the Fillmore. I had a certain timespan on the tour and I wasn’t going to see them again. I saw the show at the Fillmore. It was splendid, and I went backstage to say goodbye and got attacked.

It was [a member of the band’s entourage] and Bonzo and I don’t know who else. I know it wasn’t Jimmy [Page] or John [Paul Jones] because they were in the corner just flapping their heads. It was only an instant. It couldn’t have been more than 20 seconds, or something like that. Then Peter Grant just sprang up from his seat and just picked them up by the cuff and pulled them off me. They came at me from the front, I crossed my arms over myself, and I turned my back, and I had on this dress, that was tied in the back. The top of it was tied in the back, and they just ripped that down, but I still kept the dress up because I had my arms crossed over my front. And there I stood with the back of my dress torn and Peter said, “Why don’t you take my car home?” So we went downstairs in the back, and he put me in his limousine, and I went home, shaking. I don’t know if I was frightened or if I was angry or both, but I was just shaking. I was terrified.

I just never thought that would happen. I knew about the behavior with the groupies ’cause they would talk about it all the time, and I’d see a little bit of it. What I saw, I wrote about. I was kind of like, “That’s just with them, but I’m different. I’m a reporter. I’ll do my story for Life magazine. I won’t be vulnerable to that.” And I was.

So just to clarify, this was basically in front of a room full of people?
It was backstage, so it wasn’t all that full. It was the band, the road crew and Peter Grant, maybe a couple other people, but those weren’t very big rooms upstairs backstage at the Fillmore East. I just came in to say goodbye. I wasn’t coming in to hang out. I just wanted to say, “Goodbye. It’s been exhausting but wonderful working with you and best of luck, you’re great, thanks, goodbye.” And I was going to go home and start writing — well, I had a bunch of notes. And that was that.

Would you say that it was John Bonham who was the primary aggressor?
No, it was [the member of their entourage]. And then Bonham was right on it, but it was [the other man] who, I think, started it and then as soon as he encouraged it, then Bonham.

I don’t know where [Robert] Plant was, but I saw Jimmy Page and I saw John Paul Jones. And Jimmy Page was just, like, holding his forehead going, “No.” And John Paul Jones just kind of turned his face to the wall, like he always did. He was always apart from them. He was never into their orgies.

And you said the person who broke it up was …?
Peter Grant. And he was a big guy. Really, he could pick up 220-something guys and just lift them up and put them down. So you know, as it turned out, I was never in any real danger, but I didn’t know that.

So the entire Zeppelin road piece was written after that incident? I think you wrote that you took a year off.
Yes. I decided not to write a piece that would promote them. And plus I was having trouble having any emotional distance from it, which I hope is understandable.

Of course.
My editor was very understanding. I just backed off, and I got busy with a lot of other stuff. And then a year later I was looking at it, looking at my notes and going, “You know what? I’m putting this in the book.”

In terms of getting to that point, was it really just a process of time? Or was there some therapy, or other methods?
Yeah, it was time. You know, it’s been, what, 50 years? It was time and also that I knew that it was an anomalous event. Everybody else I ever worked with treated me very well or better.

Overall, your piece is surprisingly sympathetic to the band, in light of what happened.
Well, I mean it didn’t seem like bitterness to the point of focusing the truth elsewhere. I mean, I loved the story more than I loved them. I just took it from the notes, the way it was. Before that happened, I was very sympathetic. Empathetic maybe.

And their music, I still respect and love. The virtuosity of Jimmy Page still amazes me.

In terms of the empathy factor, that also comes through so much in your accounts of the groupies, especially in the Plaster Casters piece. There’s so many ways that those stories are told, but you portray them simply as these creative, empowered people.
Well, I think the insight into that is the gender thing. All the other ways they’ve been described were written by male writers who had a different attitude with them. Cynthia [Plaster Caster], actually, I saw her drawings and stuff, she was — she is — a fine artist. And I think that the art that she created was important. You know, she was the Robert Mapplethorpe of that era, of those musicians. I just think that was just so clever of her, and it was so unabashed of her. When you talk about the enthusiasm and the lack of criticism in my writing, it’s that unabashedness that I think is the feminine esprit of experiencing rock & roll.

And [the Plaster Casters] were so funny. It was, like, immediate connection. We sat down together, and we just started giggling. I get an obscene Christmas card — I don’t know how it makes it through the mail — with some kind of phallic design on it from Cynthia every year. And she was kind enough to [give] me permission to use the pictures she took of the plaster casts, which she’s not doing for anybody. But you know, I still have a great deal of fondness for her. I don’t know what happened to Diane, but Cynthia I still think is a great 20th-century artist.

You were discussing the female perspective that allowed you to have a whole different view of the Plaster Casters. There’s a really great line that you had, I think it’s in the introduction to this new edition, where you said, “Girls were the reason for rock ‘n’ roll.”
Yeah, yeah, I believe that.

Can you elaborate on that?
I worked kind of hard on [those] couple of lines. The first fans of rock & roll were girls, in my school in suburban New York. It was all the girls [who] got a group together to take the bus down to New York to see Love Me Tender, and then when the boys saw the girls get excited about this stuff, they got into it. The real energy between young girls and the boys was rock & roll. You could see on American Bandstand that the boys got this idea, “Oh! We can do that, and we can get girls.”

I really think that’s the birth of rock & roll. Now, musically it’s a little different — the genealogy musically of it is not that way, but as the cultural force, I believe that’s how it goes. I’m a little old lady of 75 and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

You certainly do make the case very well in the book. And obviously you do feature Mama Cass and Joni Mitchell in the book, as well as the Yoko interview. But did the fact that the great majority of the performers were male ever bother you? Did you ever wish that more of the artists you were covering were women?
You know, I think the honest answer to your question is that it was an issue, but it didn’t occur to me. I was so enthralled that that I didn’t question. And I remember reading [rock critic] Ellen Willis writing something about the song “Under My Thumb” and how sexist it was. And I thought, “I just don’t think she gets it.”

Can you explain what you mean by that?
I just felt like, it was a song; it wasn’t a cosmology. I know for a fact that the Rolling Stones did not hate women or subjugate women. They were bad boys; that was their persona. The Beatles were “I Want Hold Your Hand” and the Rolling Stones were “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”

I think nowadays, things are more politic, but I wasn’t, rightly or wrongly. I may have missed some important signals, but I could only write about how I felt.

“Art is often made by very bad people.”

Thinking about what’s happened in so many other industries with the MeToo movement, if something like the Zeppelin attack happened today and it came to light, there would be a huge uproar about it. Do you ever wish that that cultural shift had happened earlier?
I don’t think anybody who ever heard from me or read that story, I don’t remember anybody not being upset and outraged about it. And as I say, it was anomalous. … But men with power always took sexual advantage, and all of a sudden, it’s being called into question, and it’s about time.

I mean, my 50-year-old editor at Saturday Review — my agent put it this way — chased me around the desk. And when I told her about it, I was really upset; she laughed. And I felt very betrayed that she laughed. But then, I felt like, “OK, nothing bad happened, it’s just something I have to put up with — I want the gig.” And he never did it again, and we never talked about it.

It sounds like, in general, you really had to learn to compartmentalize these things.
You know, I’m not sure why, because I’ve had a lot of pain in my life and maybe that’s why. But I’ve always been able to hold opposing thoughts in my mind without going mad. Art is often made by very bad people, people who are not very good to other people, especially women, like Picasso. But we can’t throw out Picasso’s art; we can’t throw out Michael Jackson’s art. I can’t throw out Woody Allen’s art. And I’m sure it will come out very soon that women have been predatory too, in this way. But the predation of men was more common, because it was more conventional in society.

So [that’s] the reason I can appreciate Led Zeppelin’s music, [that] I don’t get a feeling of bitterness when I hear their music — I love it. And the more I hear it, the more I love it. Even now I’m, hearing new things that I wasn’t attuned enough to really hear. And I’m talking about in the music. Robert Plant’s vocals were very, very good and perfect for the band and everything but not particularly original — the musicianship was outstanding and remains outstanding.

And so you know, some would call that just being a willing victim. But I call it someone who can hold opposing ideas, notions, memories in their sense of being without it being a conflict. At the time — which you picked up on — at the time, I was very upset, and I wouldn’t listen to their music and just thinking about that would rattle me and I would push it out of my mind. And I would just tune it out if I ever heard anything by them. I guess that happened for a few years. But I came back to what got me on their tour in the first place, which was, one, because the Who said no [to a road story]. And two, because I just loved their music, and they were at a point in their careers earlier than the Who, and I thought it would actually be a better story.

How did you actually feel when the dominoes started to fall with MeToo?
Oh, boy! That was a good feeling. I think every woman felt that way: “OK, it’s about time.” When you think of the careers that had been lost, the work we would’ve seen, the women who were shut out because they wouldn’t put out. The women who did put out and suffered the damage internally and went on to prosper and to create anyway. I mean, I feel wonderful about [the movement]. I’m afraid as well because there’s going to be a barrage of accusations that are just kind of avaricious and it’s going to rob the movement of some credibility. Even so, there have been so many women who are now in positions of power and that’s why the MeToo movement happened, is that women are in a position of power.

I wanted to ask you: Having been at Woodstock, what do you think about all the 50th anniversary events being planned? Would you be interested in attending something like that?
You know, when I went to Woodstock, I had five stars on my backstage pass. I had all-access, I had all [the] comforts and everything like that. I would not be interested in going there and standing up for a couple of days. I’m glad they’re doing it. Some people are going to have a really good time. I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun. It won’t be anything like the first one, because the first one was incredible. That overcame such incredible adversity and screw-ups and bad weather and everything. It was just an amazing event. And out of the adversity and the screw-ups and the bad weather came the real newsworthiness of the event that, you know, half a million people, if that’s what it was, spent three days peacefully, with no violence around music.

I was watching the March for Our Lives event in Washington, D.C., on television after that Stoneman Douglas shooting, and it struck me, the different role that the music plays in that. In 1969, the music was leading the movement, but [when the March for Our Lives] occurred, a couple of years ago, the music was just kind of a sideline. The actual speakers and organizers were the events and the music was just kind of a soundtrack. But it wasn’t the main event; it wasn’t the message of the movement. The message of the movement was with the kids. And I thought, “Good for you guys.”

 

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