On January 8, 2018, The University of Alabama was crowned NCAA football champions when they beat the University of Georgia 26-23. This was the 5th time since 2009 that Alabama won the championship in continuing a long and illustrious tradition for the university.
You’re not going to believe this but did you know that there is an indirect link between The University of Alabama and the book When Stars Were in Reach?
It all goes back to the fall of 1971. As a sophomore in college, a group of friends and I decided we would follow The Who at the beginning of their American tour. We decided we would travel to see The Who in Charlotte, North Carolina, the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and in Atlanta Georgia, the first three stops on their American tour. Earlier in the year The Who had released “Who’s Next” so the middle portion of these shows was devoted to the album; songs that would in time be considered rock classics; songs such as Baba O’Reilly, Won’t Get Fooled Again, My Wife, Behind Blue Eyes and Bargain. The friends with whom I traveled had worked with the Who’s roadies the previous summer in a number of Who concerts in England so they were convinced that the roadies would recognize them and allow them to work with them again, thereby enabling us to get backstage.
The plan worked like a charm. We met up with The Who in Charlotte and helped the roadies with The Who’s equipment and followed them to Tuscaloosa Alabama for the next show. The University of Alabama was the most beautiful college campus I’d ever seen in my life. The show itself was not one of The Who’s best. They were having sound problems for the second consecutive show and Pete Townshend was furious with the band’s road manager Bob Pridden, whom he blamed for the equipment problems.
Following is a quote from my diary entry from the show at the University of Alabama – November 22, 1971: “They just weren’t on tonight. The sound system went again and Townshend is getting incredibly pissed at Bob Pridden. After the show Townshend had a big argument with Plum (Bob Pridden) which is why Daltrey and Entwistle were by the stage rather than in the dressing room.”
As a pimply-faced eighteen year old, to be backstage and see The Who, up close behind the scenes was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Because Pete Townshend was in such a foul mood due to the equipment malfunction, I remember the atmosphere backstage being tense and intimidating. I did what I was told my grandfather had done in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during The Great Depression in order to ingratiate himself to his boss and keep his job. He acted busy and so did I. I wouldn’t make eye contact with Pete Townshend for fear of him saying: Who the f— are you anyway? What are you doing here. Get lost!” Luckily that never took place. The road crew was a bunch of characters. Everybody had a nickname. As I mentioned above, The Who’s road manager Bob Pridden was called Plum. One of the roadies was called Bumper. In retrospect it could have been a scene from the movie “Almost Famous.”
We left the Who’s tour after the show in Atlanta, while The Who continued on to Miami, Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas and then to the western United States.
Fast forward thirty seven years to 2008. I had started to sell duplicate Fillmore East programs on ebay and enjoyed the experience of writing about each particular show’s significance and witnessing the bidding process. It was a tremendous rush to see my item bid up as the auction was coming to a close. Enjoying the experience, I rummaged through my basement for more memorabilia to sell. In a bin buried beneath other bins, I stumbled upon a rolled-up poster. I unfurled it and low and behold it was a poster from The Who concert at the University of Alabama (see below). The poster was in very good condition, as if it hadn’t been touched since November of 1971. I felt like I had made a valuable archeological find. I had forgotten the existence of that poster from the Tuscaloosa Alabama concert. But yeah, come to think of it, I had brought it back with me to New York. I immediately flashed back 37 years to that once-in-a-lifetime road trip with The Who.
I decided I was going to auction the poster on ebay. As was the case with ebay auctions, there was little bidding in the days leading up to the auction. 98% of the action occurred on the last day of the auction, in fact in the closing minutes of the auction. In the case of The Who at Tuscaloosa Alabama poster, the bidding was fast and furious in the closing minutes of the auction and I was both stunned and pleased to see the final sale price of the poster.
Later, the person who purchased the poster contacted me because he did not want me to mail the poster for fear of it being damaged in the process. Besides he wanted to meet me in the flesh, to question me and examine the poster to determine the poster’s authenticity and finally to determine if I had any other valuable posters which he could buy from me and bypass the auction process. (The answer was yes, but that’s a story for another day.) The man was a collector of rock posters and informed me that he already had a copy of the Tuscaloosa poster. However unlike mine, his had been mounted on some hard material, like poster-board. He therefore wasn’t sure my poster was authentic. I explained how the poster came into my hands, that I had been at the show and that original posters of the show were not mounted on anything. They had simply been posted on bulletin walls with thumb tacks to advertise the show or display cases; that in fact mine was the authentic form of the poster. He also gave me a short lesson about collecting rock posters. The bottom line was that the most valuable posters on the open market were concert posters. Posters with beautiful pictures of band members were of little or no value. But posters advertising actual concerts, that placed the band at a specific place and time were the posters with the most value.
Quickly enough he became convinced that the poster was authentic. Several days later he sent me an email with photos of several rare posters of Who concerts that took place in the New York metropolitan area that were from his collection. Among them was an incredibly beautiful poster of The Who at a Catholic high school in Scotch Plains New Jersey, named Union Catholic High School from November of 1967.
Seeing that beautiful poster of The Who at Union Catholic immediately transported me to a time when I was a collector of Who memorabilia and a time when I was crazy enough to travel thousands of miles to see The Who and get backstage with them. I immediately realized I had some unfinished business to attend to; to place my years of Who fandom in some meaningful context.
Across from me was this beautiful photo of The Who playing at a Catholic High School in New Jersey. But wait! The Who playing at a high school in the New York metropolitan area? And I thought I was such a big Who fan that I would have heard about such a concert at a high school. Knowing intimately The Who’s history and the band’s struggle in the U.S. to make it big, I sensed there was story behind this concert. I also figured that given that the concert took place in the New York City metropolitan area, some of the people instrumental in putting on this unusual concert may still be in the New York area and may still be alive and would be relatively accessible to meet and interview. I wasn’t far off in my hunches. And so I began my research into what would eventually result in the book When Stars Were in Reach.
And now you know the connection between the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and When Stars Were in Reach.