The Annotated History of Benefit Street/The American Dream

This text on this page was transferred and expanded from the former benefitstreetband.com site. More and better photos are coming soon.

Scroll down for:

Part 1 - The life and times of The American Dream and Benefit Street (the complete historical overview, by the band members)

Part 2 - The Slithy Toves gyre and gimble on the stage (the origins of the band in all their grizzly detail, by Rob Carlson)

Part 3 - The Summer of '68 (The American Dream invades upstate New York, by Bill Bird with Mike Parker)

Part 4 - Where we are now (the current whereabouts of most of us) 

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Part 1: The life & times of

The American Dream and Benefit Street 


The original four-man Dream

  
L-R: Mike, Al, Rob, Dave


In the beginning, there was the American Dream – the dream where we were going to play in a band, be rock stars, and change the world with our music. Well, we fulfilled the first part of the dream – in two related bands, and most of us played in several others – and we bumped into but never became the other parts. But we were so close....

The band began as The Slithy Toves, after Lewis Carroll, founded in 1967 in Providence, RI, by lead guitarist Alan Silverman. Guitarist/lead singer Rob Carlson was the next to join, followed by drummer/lead singer Mike Parker and bassist/lead singer David Noyes Roberts. (Read Rob's entertaining and full account of the formative years in Part 2 below.) The Brown University-based group played dorm and fraternity parties and area clubs, where, said Rob Carlson, “one problem became immediately apparent: the name. While Lewis Carroll has a certain cachet on a college campus he is not well known in sleazy bars.” After being called “The Slimy Toads” once too often, the renamed American Dream cut a couple of covers for a single that became our and Bovi Records’ only release. ”Love Is a Beautiful Thing,” a Rascals cover, hit #8 in Providence. The initial pressing was 1,000 records, “but we even re-ordered another thousand,” noted Bob Bovi, owner of the label and Bovi’s Records & Music Stores and music manager of Bovi’s Tavern – a respected music club – where the band played. (Bob generously provided the record used for this album.) Both tracks were real crowd pleasers. “We recorded that on a four-track system in Utica, NY,” said Dave Roberts. ”The top voice in the background vocal stack is Debbie Edick, a young woman from Mike Parker's old high school who jumped at the chance to go on the road with the band because she had a huge crush on Mike - he seemed to have this effect on lots of 19-year-old girls. When it became clear that Mike wasn't buying what she was selling, and her college boyfriend showed up at one of our club gigs, she abruptly quit the band. I nearly became a castrato to cover her vocal parts.”

 The American Dream in transition, 1969 at Brown

 
L-R: Bill Barnes, Carl, Dave, Rob's head, Al's hat, Paul's back
 

The Dream's - and Bovi's only release

 
Reached #8 on WICE, Providence, December, 1967
 

As our on- and off-campus following grew, the Dream introduced original material into their sets. We toured upstate New York with Parker’s friend, keyboardist Bill Bird, in 1968, and recorded two until-now unreleased tracks, “Bells of St. Stephen’s” and “Henry Hawthorne,” both written by Rob. But change was in the wind; Bill Bird remained in upstate New York when school began; and, according to Dave Roberts, “Mike Parker played with us through the summer of 1968, then went into the service to avoid the draft.” “’St. Stephen’s should have been their huge hit,” said keyboardist Paul Payton, who joined in the fall of ’68 along with drummer Bill Barnes, from Warwick, RI, who was half Native American. “Those chiming guitars and amazing harmonies made me love this band and want to be part of it.” But the new line-up didn’t have the same sound as the earlier version, and the Dream was over in May of 1969 with the departure of Barnes and guitarist Al Silverman.
With only two original members remaining, and learning of a Philadelphia-area group with the same name, the American Dream declared a fresh start as Benefit Street. The name came from “the hippest street in town,” which borders both Brown and Rhode Island School of Design, and has dozens of beautifully-restored colonial homes as well as off-campus student apartments. Rob Carlson brought two life-long friends from Westport, CT, into the fold: guitarist/vocalist Josh Barrett, then a student at Wesleyan in Middletown, CT; and drummer Tim Jackson, who had been in a college band in Ithaca, NY, with Larry Hoppen, later of Orleans and Buffalongo. 
   
This new line-up came with new energy, and Benefit Street affiliated with Jimmy Israeloff, co-owner of the successful Beacon Record Shops, who set up Barefoot Productions and became our manager and financier. The initial idea was for him to underwrite the release "Bells of St. Stephen's" and "Henry Hawthorne" as a follow-up 45. These two Rob Carlson originals were recorded at the same studio as the previous 45, and we were hoping a single release would get us better local bookings. However, Beacon Shops had just been bought by ABC Record & Tape Sales, and Jimmy saw an “in” to get the group an album on ABC. Unfortunately, that quest amounted to only endless frustration and no release. So did several other tries at a major label release throughout the band’s lifespan, including Capitol, Columbia and Buddah. Paul: “We were always a heartbreak away from a contract.”

Benefit Street, Sir Morgan's Cove, Worcester, MA, 

 
1970: Maddie singing; Paul on keyboards. The crowd liked us; they let us live! 
 

As fulltime musicians, we needed money, and thus continued to work the local “clubs and covers” circuit; but our desire to play original music and be more “progressive” made us a difficult fit. The situation came to a head with our “great awakening” during the week of the Woodstock festival in August, 1969, when we were fired for “not being ‘Louie Louie’ enough” from a top 40 club in Pawtucket, RI. Our “consolation prize” was “exile” to a two-week gig on Block Island, which turned out to be a magical place where the band awakened to “what made Benefit Street more than just a college band that thought it might take a crack at the big time,” explained Josh Barrett. “Rob Carlson’s songwriting was lyrical and clever, and we came to understand it was all about the music and not about flash and ego. We played and recorded together as a band with a high level of musicianship, and we listened to each other and responded to each other’s ideas.” (Rob also developed a life-long love of Block Island, and has published both a history book and a novel about it.)

Josh again: “Jimmy Israeloff really was a prince to us in many ways – and didn't he pay for all these recordings?” Rob: “He was a mensch of the first order and did us many a mitzvah.” Those mitzvahs included being a true friend and fan, “lending” us money for equipment and living expenses, and underwriting our recordings. Benefit Street’s first session, at Intermedia in Boston, MA, in October of ’69, came just weeks after the band formed. It showcased Rob’s “Gingerman” (a beautiful crowd-pleaser previously performed with the American Dream) and a re-worked “Henry Hawthorne.” Both songs were produced by Martin Mull, whose band Soup (one LP on Vanguard) occasionally shared equipment with the American Dream and Benefit Street. ”Gingerman” was a winner, but while “Henry II” was good, it was much more effective by the Dream. This helped to point the way for us to concentrate on our post-Block Island “musical enlightenment.”

Our second session, at Natural Sound in Maynard, MA, reflected the new direction, and several sessions at Aengus Studios in suburban Boston, recording home of the legendary Andy Pratt (“Avenging Annie”), yielded even better results, including the timeless Carlson original “Seven Years.” But in 1970, bassist Dave Roberts, who had committed a year to see if the band would “happen,” departed the group in favor of his new family and the group’s sound got a bit harder and bluesier when then-husband-and-wife team Carl and Maddie Armstrong came aboard. Prior to joining, Carl had played guitar on Wadsworth Mansion’s hit “Sweet Mary.” This six-piece line-up played on the rest of our studio recordings, all at Aengus.

Despite being unreleased, our recorded songs found local success, being played extensively by WBRU, Brown’s 20,000 watt progressive rock radio station. “That became a double-edged sword,” said Paul. “We increased our local fame and exposure for our original material, but no album was released. With no album, we couldn’t get on a national tour. But with so many songs on the radio, local club-owners thought we did have an album, and were thus too expensive to hire. As a result, we fell through some very high cracks.” Dave again: “Think about how tied up (down?) we were by radio and the record industry. How would it have worked out if the internet and related technologies had been available to us?” In hindsight, selective exposure and local releases might have been a more prudent course. Nonetheless, we still played concerts with many major artists, some a better fit than others,  including Janis Joplin, Edgar Winter, Sam & Dave, Deep Purple, Buddy Miles, Rhinoceros, Firesign Theater and The Stooges. (More below.) We also played between the J. Geils Band and Manfred Mann Chapter III at 1970’s Woods of Dartmouth Festival, a high point – in several ways!

Left, Paul Payton; center, Jimmy Conley of The Blue Tooth. Does anyone remember the ladies' names?

The group’s music continued to grow and develop in a series of successful engagements booked in upstate Vermont in 1970-71. That club scene appreciated original music and audiences were requesting our original songs. Josh Barrett: “How lucky we were to have those Vermont gigs.” We even worked for honest club owners! Our favorites were Jimmy Conley of The Blue Tooth in Burlington and Sugarbush (with headband, pictured center with Paul, left, and other friendly Vermonters) and Gar Anderson of The Rusty Nail in Stowe. Both became friends and fans as well as employers. And we had “adventures.” “I seem to recall Tim swathed up like Claude Rains as the Invisible Man after a skier landed on him,” Rob remembered. “Did we actually all go skinny dipping under a bubble at ten below zero? And was there actually a guy called Scumbag?” Paul: “Yes, a good guy – a friend of Carl and Maddie’s.”

Paul recalls the canvas bubble and the pool: "A local motel maintained it and let area staff and band members use it after hours. We'd peel off our clothes and leave them in an adjacent stairwell, run ten feet through the icy cold, unzip the entrance to the bubble, then jump into the hot-water pool. There was so much fog in there that you could hardly see three feet in front of you, which no doubt helped in the 'discretion' department! No names will be used here," Paul adds, "since the statute of limitations probably hasn't run out yet!" 

Bill Bird recalls: “In the summer of 1970, between semesters, I took a temporary church assignment up near the Canadian border, and the band all came to visit.  I can still remember the little old parishioners’ jaws dropping when this group of long-haired hippie freaks walked in, especially Josh – long-haired bearded Jewish guy who looked a lot like the picture on the church wall.  Some must have sworn it was the Second Coming!”  

This is a good place to give special thanks to our two road managers. John Cooney, now a lawyer in Washington, DC, spent the summer between graduating from Brown and law school keeping us alive and well, mostly on our Vermont excursions. (John has been married for many years to Lisa Kimball, Rob’s former wife.) First keyboardist Bill Bird went to theology school in Boston and became our “roadie for lots of gigs almost every weekend – Boston College with Grand Funk Railroad, Bucknell University, Skidmore at the Casino in Saratoga, jobs with J. Geils, B.B. King, Firesign Theater [Paul adds: “Not many – if any – other bands can say they opened for Firesign!”], several outdoor concerts, a bunch of bars.  I would drive the truck and schlep gear, set up and be the sound guy. As I recall, we continued to do the weekend roadie/groupie thing through the next school year.”  More from and about Bill below and in Part 3.
          
Despite the good times, the usual things that plagued unsigned bands, like lack of money, kept closing in on us. Josh left the band due to family issues in the summer of 1971. He was replaced by Leo Genereux of Pawtucket, RI, a talented right-hander with a unique style and tuning, playing left-handed with strings tuned upside-down in an open E chord, often resulting in an unusual lead style, frequently played in the middle register. (Self-taught, Leo originally tuned to an open E-flat!) Again, the band’s sound shifted, and although Benefit Street kept working clubs and concerts, the original dream – an album of our original songs, essentially this one – never came to pass. After September, 1971, we continued with five members when Paul departed and wasn’t replaced; and, tiring of the clubs-and-covers scene, Benefit Street came to its final stop sign in late 1972.
                     
Post-Benefit Street, many different roads were followed, yet many intertwined throughout our lives. Upon leaving The American Dream, Mike Parker’s Army stint earned him Military Policeman of the Year in 1970 – “I suspect because of my initials.” After the service, he graduated from Miami of Ohio and played in a band called Avalanche with Al Silverman. He was a golf pro in Florida, then worked for Sports Illustrated in Chicago, LA and New York, became a publisher and eventually an investment banker now living in Connecticut.  In one of those "intertwinings," in 2011 and 2012, Mike joined the new group, "Rob Carlson & Benefit Street," on-stage at two Connecticut venues to sing his original harmony vocals on "The Bells of St. Stephen's." "They were experiences we all hope to repeat," says Paul, "since the vocal blend was still outstanding!"
                         
First keyboardist Bill Bird was a minister for several years, and is now “married to Mike's sister Pam and have been for 15 years [as of] August [2010].  I work for the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities managing a staff that relates to 85 non-profit agencies that provide services for us to people with developmental disabilities in central NY.  Pam and I went to hear Rob Carlson and his group [Modern Man] in Saratoga a few years ago. I also helped officiate at Rob’s wedding to Lisa Kimball in Westport." Bill continues: "Many years ago, when I was just past the preacher stage of my life, I took a date to see Robin Lane and the Chartbusters at Hamilton College, not knowing that Tim Jackson was her drummer.  As we watched the show, the drummer's style really caught my eye (and memory) and I realized it was Tim.  I hung out to catch him after the show (much to my date's embarrassment; she was sure I was going to look like an idiot), and when Tim came out it took him about 2 seconds to recognize me. It was great reunion!  We (my date and I – she was totally amazed) took him out to some of the local dives in Utica and had a great time.”
               
Long-time recording engineer and producer Alan Silverman now runs Arf Mastering in New York, and, according to Rob, “is one of America's better mastering engineers.” Before starting Arf, Al engineered at Electric Lady and A&R, two of New York’s foremost studios. Involved with over 40 Grammy-nominated albums, his credits include work with Patricia Barber, Judy Collins (for whom he also produced), Shawn Colvin, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, The Kinks, Earl Klugh, Medeski Martin & Wood, Dolly Parton, Cheap Trick, and Bebo Valdes (five-time Grammy winner). Alan mastered Rob’s 2009 solo album, "Pieces of Paradise," and the new Rob Carlson & Benefit Street's debut CD (2011). He also teaches at NYU. 
          
Dave Roberts left music, briefly worked at Beacon Shops, then went on to graduate from Harvard Business School and have a large family and a very successful corporate and entrepreneurial career. After HBS, he joined Bain and Company, the major consultancy, in which he was a business and golfing partner of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is “still a personal friend.” Dave adds: “Most interesting [thing in my time at Bain] was the 3 ½ years I lived in Tokyo launching and running the Asian business.” He currently lives in Colorado where [as of 2010] he’s launching two new digital ventures.  Their websites are at the bottom of this page. He and Paul enjoyed a reunion in in Colorado the fall of 2011 for the first time in almost 40 years.
                   

Josh Barrett still sings and plays guitar. He's in an eight-piece blues and swing band with his wife, Julie Adams (who sings in the house band for NPR’s “Mountain Stage”), and also plays acoustic gigs. He is winding down his “day job” as senior partner in a very successful law practice in West Virginia, “working for the good guys.”

Paul Payton resumed what became his long radio career as a Music Director and on-air personality in New England and a voice-over talent in New York. Never losing his love for music, he released three singles on Presence in the ‘80s and ‘90s under his own name and with The Fabulous Dudes, a doo-wop group, whose debut album on Presence was released during the winter of 2013. He continues to work with Rob Carlson & The Benefit Street Band, whose second album was released in the fall of 2015 on Presence.

Drummer Tim Jackson made the first post-Street recorded appearance, on a Columbia album by John Paul Jones in the early 1970s. He also recorded with numerous artists as diverse as Tom Rush, Stormin' Norman & Suzy and Lavern Baker. “I contributed to many John Sayles soundtracks,” said Tim. “I also did three albums and tours with Robin Lane & The Chartbusters (on Warner Brothers), who landed the 11th song on MTV, and have worked with some 20 bands over the years including my own band of 25 years, The Band That Time Forgot. I’m an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art, have directed two documentaries, and am working on a third. Unable to quiet the acting bug, I also piddle away as a part-time actor.”

Rob Carlson joined with long-time friend Jon Gailmor for the 1974 “cult classic” album on Polydor, “Peaceable Kingdom” (the title cut and "Thank the Island" remain under-appreciated classics). He has enjoyed a long career in Modern Man, a folk-comedy trio with David Buskin and George Wurzbach with several albums to their credit. A regular contributor to The American Comedy Network (a national syndicator of radio comedy), “Ramblin’ Rob” also ran "The Producers," his own Creative Services studio in Connecticut, from which he created dozens of radio commercials and comedy segments over many years. “Pieces of Paradise,” his new solo album, was released in 2009, and his novel about Block Island, “Long Kate,” was published in summer, 2010. The Benefit Street connections continue as well: after 39 years  Paul started playing with Rob in a trio touring to support "Pieces of Paradise," which evolved into the new Rob Carlson & Benefit Street. The new band's debut album was released in September, 2011 on What Cheer (a partnership of Presence Records and Inverted Turtle Records). Both "Paradise" and the group CD were mastered by original guitarist Alan Silverman.  The group's second album, "Angels on the Radio," was released in the fall of 2015, including a remake of "Gardner, Illinois" from the "Peaceable Kingdom" album.                         

Maddie's current vocal group, TVS

 
L-R: Suzanne Boucher (Tim Jackson's wife), Maddie, Sally Sweitzer
 

The Armstrongs, although separated, joined Jean-Do Sifantus in Road Apples which had an album and #35 national single (#1 in Boston), “Let’s Live Together,” on Mums in 1976. The group broke up shortly thereafter and so did Maddie and Jean-Do. Maddie: “For twenty years I ran a non-profit I founded which combined music, elders and ministry, and became a Unitarian Universalist Minister, serving congregations in suburban Boston and becoming active in the church organization.” Still active musically as well as spiritually, she sang in TVS (The Vocal Section) with Tim’s wife, Suzanne Boucher, while in Massachusetts. In 2015, Rev. Sifantus moved to California to serve a church there. 

Carl Armstrong “continued as a working musician (a/k/a playing for drunks) from ‘74 to ‘85 until the toxic lifestyle was no longer tolerable. (If you want the thrill of bands...I've been through the mill of bands.) I then morphed into an electronic engineer, a career choice that to this day has served me well. I am currently living in Buffalo NY and playing kirtan music. (Think Sanskrit hootenanny...Namaste!)” The second drummer for The American Dream, Bill Barnes, still lives in Rhode Island; and manager Jimmy Israeloff is retired in Florida.

Benefit Street's last lead guitarist, Leo Genereux is in Australia, possibly in New South Wales, playing with a group called The Dreamtime Brothers. In December, 2011, we received an update from a woman named Kate (no last name given), who had read this website and knew Leo when they both lived in the Pacific northwest. Her comments follow, verbatim: 
"I lost contact with Leo in 1985 when he went to Australia. He is a person who sought adventure, backpacking by himself in Guatemala, sailing for about a year as entertainment and sailing mate. He lived in a mountainous area in California where movie stars live,,,then he came to live in Grants Pass, Oregon, where I met him. Then he moved to San Francisco and became a certified hypnotherapist; shortly after that, he was Ken Keyes Jr. assistant (Keyes who wrote 'Handbook to Higher Consciousness'). That was 1985, the last I have seen of that dude. I have googled his band 'Dreamtime Brothers' and typed Leo's name with it. There are 3 CDs his band has made. I recognize Leo's voice in the music I have listened to. It's fun to see that he is still a wonderful musician after all these years. I think the music keeps you talented people forever young."

But wait, there’s more….

In April, 2009, Rob Carlson contacted the band members about digitizing our music for The Rhode Island Popular Music Archive, which became the impetus to finally release this album. There was also an “encore” presentation! Rob: “I had this song called ‘Benefit Street and Me’ written 35 years ago just as Benefit Street was breaking up. I never did anything with it, but this seemed like an opportunity to do something fun.” For the “new” song, Rob produced a virtual session in late 2009 and early 2010, with all band members invited to add parts; all six of the last recording unit contributed, making us once again a band, even if a long-dormant one. Josh again: “I think our music holds up even today, 40 years later. It has an organic feel that makes it more than the sum of its parts.” The session also led to the ultimate establishment of a new band, Rob Carlson & The Benefit Street Band, which released its debut self-titled CD in the fall of 2011 and second CD, "Angels on the Radio," in the fall of 2015.

From the exuberance of “Bells of St. Stephen’s” to gem-like “Seven Years” and the wistful “Benefit Street and Me,” we’re still a band never too old to rock & roll – or to be sweet and folky. On reflection, we all think we cut some pretty decent tracks (including our new one) that are still worth hearing, and on a good night, we know we were as good as the best of them. Dave Roberts gets the last word: “Overall, I had a great experience on many different dimensions, and I certainly wouldn’t trade those years for a more conventional college/post college life. In my terms, we were successful in spite of all the craziness and obstacles — we had fun and great adventures, made good friends and produced a body of work that holds up pretty well after 40 years in the vault. Not bad for a bunch of 'barefoot boys' in our early twenties!”

The last line-up ay the last Blue Tooth Sugarbush gig, Warren, VT, summer, 1972 
Leo, Carl, Maddie, Rob, Tim (sorry about the small size - it's what we've got to work with!)
 

 

Winter publicity photo, Vermont, 1971-72  L-R: Rob, Carl, Leo, Maddie, Tim 
 

The Slithy Toves / The American Dream 
 

 

 Mike Parker, Al Silverman, David Noyes Roberts, Rob Carlson 
 


 Part 2: The Slithy Toves gyre and gimble upon the stage

by Rob Carlson 

This is a chapter from Rob Carlson's as yet uncompleted memoir, "How I Got This Way," and gets into graphic detail (we've got your attention now, haven't we?) about the roots and first flowering of our amazing aggregation. Although the statute of limitations has long since run out, a couple of words have been changed anyway to protect the guilty. (The other people, not the band members!) 
© 2010, Rob Carlson, used by permission 
 

In some sort of convoluted “because of a nail…” way, the story of my professional music career began with coffee milk. Coffee milk is like chocolate milk, only with coffee syrup instead of chocolate. It exists, to my knowledge, only in Rhode Island. It’s delicious, you should try it. Why no one ever came up with “Mocha Milk” escapes me. You got chocolate milk, you got coffee milk. Come on, push the envelope. But you can’t ask for too much. It is Rhode Island, after all.

I discovered it soon after my arrival at Brown University. Myself and a room mate, David Thomas by name, were housed initially in what is now called the Keeney Quad, then called the West Quad, otherwise styled the “Freshman Ghetto.” We were a big class and Thomas and I were housed in an “emergency double.” That was a single with two guys in it. Ghetto?You bet. We soon opted to move to a real double in the Wriston Quadrangle, which is one of the reasons I know so few of my Class of ’70 classmates. But that’s another story.

At the corner of the Quad was a “Machine City,” lined with vending machines, vending among other things, coffee milk, the true deliciousness of which I had just discovered. Next to the machines was a bulletin board. It was on a trip to Machine City for coffee milk that I saw a note on the board which read “Musicians wanted. Positions open in established band” and directed the reader to a room in Marcy House. That sounded good to me.  Then as now there is nothing I would rather do than get together with other people and play music. All through high school during the Folk Music scare of the early Sixties I had a “folk” trio a la Peter, Paul and Mary, or the Chad Mitchell Trio. Then along came the Beatles and the Byrds, Dylan went electric and the world changed. I heard “Mr. Tamborine Man” and knew then and there I had to get an electric guitar.

So I pestered my Dad, who didn’t understand why if I already had an acoustic guitar I needed an electric one too. Eventually he gave in and loaned me the money to get a solid body Rickenbacker 12-string from another kid, which could not be tuned and broke strings constantly, but it was what McGuinn played, or sort of, so I was happy.

Thus I arrived in Brunonia ready to rock and roll. And here was my chance. An established band! So I went to the appointed room in Marcy House and knocked on the door. A voice said to come in and there, guitar in hand, sat Al Silverman. I introduced myself, told him I sang and played guitar and asked about the established band. Al said, “We’re it, so far. We’re looking for two other guys.” Somehow I had expected more. But Al went to work and within a week had come up with a drummer, Mike Parker, and a bass player named David Roberts, both sophomores, like Al. And you know, it wasn’t too bad.

Parker was from upstate New York and not only played decent drums, he could sing well. Roberts was a Massachusetts kid who had, or soon got, a Hoffner bass, like McCartney played. And he could sing too, especially the high parts. My role was as a lead singer/rhythm player. So we had two lead singers, a high voice and a competent drummer. Al didn’t sing but busted his ass learning guitar parts off records so he could play them note for note. We could cover the Beatles and Byrds and Stones, and Parker knew a bunch of garage band rockers like “Tobacco Road” and “Gloria”.

We did better in the name department, or so we thought at the time. Al came up with “The Slithy Toves”, from Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. We all liked it and that was that.After a couple rehearsals and one gig in the West Quad it became apparent that the lack of equipment was a major problem. So what to do? Why, go back and pester Dad, of course! Somehow I persuaded my dear rock-ribbed Republican, North Dakota born and bred, conservative chemist father, a man whose idea of good music was Nelson Eddy and actually enjoyed Lawrence Welk, to buy us some Fender amps on the promise of paying him back from gigs. It is only now that I am a father that I understand why he did that. Because you’ll do just about any kind of shit for your kids, that’s why.

Enter David C. Henry. I don’t know where Al found this slug but he purported to be an agent who could get us all kinds of off campus gigs. He took us out to somewhere in Rhode Island and we played for somebody. I don’t remember the details. It doesn’t matter, we didn’t get hired. What I do remember is when we brought our brand new equipment back to campus David C. Henry generously offered to help us carry it in to where we stored it in the basement of Marcy House. What a guy.That night the store room at Marcy House was broken into and all our stuff was ripped off. We never, of course, saw David C. Henry (no doubt not his real name) again. Which also tells you something about the Brown campus cops. In the wee small hours of the morning something about the size of a Volkswagen was carried past their office at the gates of Wriston Quadrangle by people who had no business being there and it somehow escaped their notice.

“Hello, Dad?” It was a long phone call. The upshot was that since we were not professionals (boy were we ever) the amps were covered by his homeowners policy. So we got more amps. The guy at the music store was starting to like us a lot. Good ol’ Dad.

So the Slithy Toves were back in business. I finally came to realize that although McGuinn played a Rickenbacker 12 string and sounded great, his guitar was a lot better than mine. Plus, of course, he was good. My Rick just broke strings and went out of tune all the time because I had (still do) the touch of a poorly coordinated gorilla. Al found a guitar for me in New York, a Gretsch Chet Atkins model with a mere six strings, which reduced my tuning problems by fifty percent. I think it was also about this time Dave got his Hoffner Beatle bass.

We started to get gigs at Brown parties. Brown had fraternities, but they weren’t as big a deal as at some other campuses. With no off-campus fraternity (the term “frat” was never used out of sheer Ivy League snobbery) houses allowed, the rooms were the same, and everybody ate at the Ratty (Sharpe Refectory to the uninitiated), so the food was the same. The only advantage was that the social life was purported to be better. I don’t know, I never joined one. All I wanted to do on the weekends was play in the band so I had no social life anyway. A couple of the independent houses had good parties too, and Diman House became one of our favorites. Once we got good we worked every weekend, often two nights, and made decent money. And we did get good. We had strong vocals with three part harmony and Al knew the guitar parts verbatim.

There is a lot to be said for knowing when to quit. Ask Napoleon, or Hitler. With them it was invading Russia. With us it was Pawtucket. I’m pretty sure it was Al’s idea. He was the leader, the Boss Tove as it were, and he was ambitious. We wanted to work more than just the Brown Campus, especially during vacation weeks and such, so Al went to work. I don’t remember the details but somehow or other we got booked for a few nights into a nightclub in Pawtucket run by a guy named “Spike.” I kid you not, “Spike.” We followed a band called “Bobby Duke and the Counts,” if memory serves, who were all black and basically did the James Brown show. It was the spring of 1967. The Beatles and the British invasion was really happening big time at this point and the Summer of Love was just around the corner. Our hair was getting pretty long at this point and we wore beads and bellbottoms, so I guess Spike wanted to go with the trend. I have no other explanation. That said, this was really not the room for us.

For me it was a revelation. I was a white kid from Westport, Connecticut, enrolled at great expense in the Hallowed Halls of Ivy. I had never worked in a place with career criminals, pimps and hookers before. I remember explaining from the stage one evening how a harmonica worked, you blow for one chord and sucked for another. Some people at the bar found this amusing. I pressed on, saying something along the lines of “no, clowns, that’s really how it works.” An audible and ominous murmur rippled around room and one of my band mates suggested I shut up before we all got killed. So I did. We probably wouldn’t have actually been killed, just seriously beaten and left in a parking lot, but good sense prevailed.

We worked at least one other place in Pawtucket but I think only lasted one night, which only added to my growing realization that there was a whole big world out there to which we had not been introduced. I think Parker and Roberts were undergoing the same epiphany. Roberts was from some suburb in Massachusetts (North Brookfield, more of an exurb) and Parker was from a place called Sandy Creek in upstate New York which his father essentially owned and was too small to have a village idiot so they all took turns. Al was from the Bronx (the Grand Concourse) so maybe he was more familiar with the demi-monde than the rest of us. I don’t know.

What I do know was that Al was not to be denied. Summer was approaching and we decided unanimously that rather than go back home and do the usual shitty summer jobs that college kids traditionally did we would see if we could keep the band working over the summer. Rhode Island seemed like a pretty small pond for the reason that it is. They don’t come much smaller. So Al went up to Boston to look for a big time agent. He came back with the name Larry Jaspin. That may not be the correct spelling, but it probably wasn’t his real name either.

Jaspin was the sort of agent that had two Doberman Pinschers. A two dog agent. And a gun. This should have told us something, but it didn’t. Did I mention Napoleon and Hitler? I believe I did. I guess Jaspin saw in us the same thing Spike saw, four long haired guys in a guitar band, which was all the rage at the time. Most of the professional bands around were more along the Bobby Duke lines, with horns and an identifiable front man, usually called “Somebody and the Somethings” doing Four Seasons and R&B. So it’s the Summer of Love, the times they are a-changin’ and along comes the Slithy Toves. Voila!

One problem became immediately apparent, however. The name.  While Lewis Carroll has a certain cachet on a college campus he is not well known in Mafia bars. So Jaspin books us into this place in Weymouth and first thing the guy says is “What the f*** is this? The Shitty Frogs? What kind name for a band is that?” I assume we explained but I think it was pretty much lost on him. It didn’t matter. We never went back there anyway.

The reason we never went back there was we worked all week and never got paid. This was not a very successful or well-run boit de nuit and at the end of the week the manager/bartender cleaned out the cash register and ran off with the go-go dancer, professionally known as Shannon Daniels.

Shannon was not much of a dancer, but she was apparently bonking the manager, so she got to dance. Dave Roberts recalls how at one point in the proceedings Mr. Manager yelled out, “Let the little lady sing a song!” So Shannon doesn’t miss a beat. She turns and says to us, “Kansas City, boys, in C.” Okay, we can do that. It’s just three chords in C. Unfortunately C is not Shannon’s key. Nor is anything else. I mean, this girl can’t sing, at all, and wouldn’t know the key of C if it bit her, which it probably would if it could. Nobody cared. So we got through it.

At the end of the week we packed up our gear and left on the promise we’d be paid the next day. Over the years I have been told by other club owners, “Sorry, but we’ve closed the safe for the night and I don’t know the combination. Stop by tomorrow and we’ll take care of you.” But I eschew it. From this early experience I developed one very basic tenet - a religious principle, if you will - of night club work: Never, ever, leave without the money. Stay all night if you have to, call the police if you have to, but get paid then and there. Amen. (From this principle David Roberts formulated his seminal corollary, “Omnes clubowneres assholes sunt”.) It has served me well over the years and I owe it all to that lunchbag in Weymouth. And I never stopped to thank him. That night, he cleaned out the cash register and left for greener pastures with Shannon. Next day the place was closed, out of business. At least we got our gear out, sparing me yet another long phone call to my Dad.

So, flat broke, we retreated to a very posh condo in Cambridge owned by a friend of Roberts', or a friend of Roberts' very posh girlfriend, Diane (“Sexy Di”) Cook if memory serves me. After sharing beds with Roberts in motels that would have been a welcome addition to Stalin’s gulags, it was a welcome touch of civilization. I was also sick at this point and the rock and roll life didn’t look so inviting any more. I remember sleeping on the floor under a real bearskin rug, the only time I have ever encountered a real bearskin. It was incredibly warm and I sweated out the fever that night. The next day things looked better.

The next period is more than a little hazy but the upshot is we decided to press on. I think it was about this time we realized the Slithy Toves was not going to cut it and started thinking about another name. I don’t remember who came up with the “American Dream,” after the Edward Albee play, but we liked it. And so the Slithy Toves became the American Dream and set out for new adventures. 

 PART 3: Summer of '68

a/k/a Fun in the Mountains; or, The American Dream explores upstate New York

by Bill Bird with Mike Parker

    With eleven band members over its five-year history, Benefit Street under all its names is chock full of stories. Although Bill Bird was the keyboard artist and background singer only during the summer of 1968, when we were The American Dream, his friendships and involvements with the group before and after that time gave him a unique perspective on the formative years.
    Bill's association started in Sandy Creek, in northern New York state, where Bill and singer/drummer Mike Parker grew up and played in a local band before Mike went to college at Brown. Recalling the events in 2010, Bill describes the adventure:

Early in the summer of '67 The American Dream came home with Mike to Sandy Creek and auditioned Deb Edick, much to his sister Pam's chagrin at not even being considered by her big brother Mike for the band.  Pam could sing, but I don't think Mike wanted his little sister in the band, so he passed on her.  She still makes a face when that comes up.  Anyway...I remember hearing that Mike was back in town with his new band.  We had lost him as a drummer in The Serfs when he went to Brown.  The Serfs had reconstituted ourselves with another drummer, and we changed our name to the Coin Operated Laundry.  I remember vividly going to hear The Dream and meeting Rob, Dave and Al for the first time practicing in Mike's garage.  They were doing Spanky and Our Gang songs with Deb as the female vocalist, and they sounded freakin' great!  The harmonies were phenomenal.  Then they came to hear us (probably at our favorite bar down on Lake Ontario, The Hotel Comfort. We were into playing covers of a lot of non-top 40 songs like the Blues Project's "Wake Me, Shake Me" and "I Can't Keep from Cryin'," and Moby Grape's "Omaha" as well as Stones and Beatles songs, and they loved us.  There was mutual respect.  We thought their vocal sound couldn't be beat, and they had never heard a band that could drive like we did.  Fortunately for both groups, they got some gigs in other parts of the state and we didn't have to compete with each other, but that laid the groundwork for my becoming a member of the Dream the following summer.  The Dream knew I could play and sing.

I connected with the guys on the last day they were at Brown. I was coming in from Sandy Creek with the Parkers' International Harvester Scout (4 cylinders and a basic steel body, but we had some great times in that thing) and pulling a big U-Haul trailer.  We loaded up all their luggage and gear (probably two tons worth), and Al Silverman was to ride with me in the Scout.  The other guys were in one of their cars.  Just before we left, Silverman got out of the Scout and pitched a can of frozen orange juice through the window of the fraternity house he had suffered next to all year.  Orange juice??  In the conventional wisdom of the day, if you were high, Vitamin C could/would bring you down.  So Al was symbolically bringing them down - an ill-considered gesture since the getaway vehicle could barely do 25 miles an hour and could be spotted a mile away.  He jumped into the cab, and I drove off - slowly.  Within a few blocks, a car full of hung-over fraternity boys caught up with us at a red light, and they leaped out and came swinging at me and Al in the cab of the Scout.  I vaguely remember Silverman smashing a bottle over some guy's head (or looking like he was about to), while I traded punches with a big guy on my side.  That was when I realized I could take a punch.  Mike, Rob and Dave were up ahead and came back to see what was holding us up.  Rob's size and the fact that there were 3 of them probably made the difference, but the fight ended and the fraternity boys left.  I had gotten the worst of it, though, with a small cut to the forehead that left my face half-covered in blood.  We drove to a restaurant where I cleaned up and we ate and continued on (me with a raging headache) to Westport for two weeks of practice time in Rob's basement. To put this in its historical context it was while the Dream was getting its new act together at Rob's home in Westport that Robert Kennedy was assassinated.  I remember watching the coverage on the Carlsons' TV.

It was an inauspicious beginning.  But it was there that we discovered we could do all kinds of neat stuff with a keyboard in the band, so we added Temptations songs and some more Rascals stuff to our repertoire.  Al Silverman was commuting from the city, and one day he rolled in with an album by Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper. Gris gris gumbo!  I think we might have done one number off that Night Tripper LP.  I remain amazed at how early we came to Dr. John and what a true icon he has become!

Mike Parker adds:

My first memory of Al Silverman was meeting him in his room at Bronson House [at Brown] where he was strumming on a priceless Gibson mandolin.  We started to talk music and soon thereafter he took me to Greenwich Village to hear The Blues Project.  Totally blown away by Danny Kalb's lightning-like fingers and perhaps a little "elevated in mood," I approached the caped Al Kooper as he came off the stage on break and said, "Where'd you get that cape, man?"  He replied, "Cape store," and walked away.  I didn't ask any more stupid questions that night!  Following that, I told Al [Silverman] about my old band The Serfs and he said, "Why don't we organize a mixer and get them here to play?" (From upstate New York!!  I think The Serfs had already changed their name to Coin Operated Laundry by then.) I called Bird and he thought it was a terrific idea. Al and I went around to all the women's schools and recruited them to come to Brown, we provided buses, etc.  Came the night in Sayles Hall we filled the place with maybe 1000 people, the Brown guys all hanging out at the front door leering as the ladies waltzed in off their buses.  What a night!  I'm not sure they ever allowed a mixer in Sayles Hall again after that.  But that was the spark igniting the idea to put a band together, just like Alan Musgrave had done with The Night People [The American Dream's chief on-campus competition].  And Bobby Mason [of The Night People] was such a good drummer! 

Bob Mason later became the drummer for The Fugs when they recorded on Reprise.

Bill Bird again:

The Sayles mixer!  Spring of 1966!  We were so psyched to be doing a job that involved crossing state lines!  "Dirty Water" had just come out and so had "Good Lovin'."  I think we had already copied "Good Lovin'" (minus an organ at the time) but we had only just heard The Standells, so when we got to Providence, we went to a record store and bought the 45, took it to Mike's room, listened to it and learned it.  We played it at the mixer that night.  As I recall, Musgrave was watching us, and I think Mike might have told him we had just learned the song earlier that day.  He couldn't believe it until Mike pointed out that [lead singer] Don Bird was reading the lyrics from a crib sheet.

I also heard the Blues Project at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village.  Bob Hazard (Coin Operated Laundry's lead player) and I had gone to NYC while Don and Herb Clark (the drummer who replaced Mike) went out to Haight-Ashbury for a little summer break.  We saw the Blues Project, but Don and Herb saw a couple of bands playing on the back of flatbed trucks in Golden Gate Park at the funeral for Chocolate George, a deceased Hell's Angel.  The bands were the Grateful Dead and this other band with a wild chick singer (Janis Joplin).  Ah, yes, that was the summer of love, '67.

Mike Parker continues:

One other vivid memory was the night The American Dream played at the Biltmore the same night that Moby Grape was playing on campus.  We saw them come in about midnight and Carlson said, "Let's play ‘Omaha,'" which we did. They came up and told us we did it better than them.

The American Dream

 
Bill Bird in front, summer, 1968

 
Bill picks up the story:

That song was always a Coin Operated Laundry staple. The Dream decided to pick it up after hearing us play it during that summer of '67 when they came to Sandy Creek.

After rehearsing with The American Dream, we hit the upstate New York circuit.  We did a memorable gig for weeks as the house band at the Halfway House in Eagle Bay, NY, deep in The Adirondacks and home bar to most of the summer help at the many resorts in that area. The kids would come in after work and get hammered and dance to us several nights a week.  We were housed at Gifford's Little Cottage Motel in Inlet, in tiny cabins (slept 2) with no showers.  We bathed at a coin-operated laundry (!) down the road that had the first pay showers I'd ever seen.  The most affordable food was at Dave's Chicken Hut, home of "Broasted" chicken, next door to the Halfway House.  Dave was big fan of the band, but we got kicked out of a different restaurant in Inlet for looking too sleazy and unkempt! Then there was the night Mike had a sore throat and OD'ed on the spray pain-killer for same, Chloraseptic.  We didn't realize he was taking hits off that just about every song, and I think the recommended dose was like once every 4 hours.  He didn't know who or where he was when we finished our set that night!  [The alcoholic content of Chloraseptic was not a well-known fact at the time!] Today the Chicken Hut is gone and the Halfway House is an outdoor sporting goods store.  It was a great bar.  I haven't had the heart to step into it since.

In the summer of '68 we recorded "The Bells of St. Stephen's" and "Henry Hawthorne" in Utica in a four-track studio for our agent, Gene. I played a Farfisa because Al Kooper played one, and we wanted to capture that same sound as when we covered the Blues Project numbers in The Coin Operated Laundry.  We did a couple of Blues Project songs, "Wake Me Shake Me" and "I Can't Keep from Crying," with those pure Farfisa opening chords. We may have also done "Cheryl's Going Home" with some nice Farfisa riffs on it.  I added Fender Leslie speakers later on and played it through a Twin Reverb amp.  Also, if I'm not mistaken, Al Silverman's homemade fuzz tone on "Henry Hawthorne" consisted of components scotch-taped to a piece of wood; it was the only time it worked that well.  He would curse that thing every night at some point.

Other fun stuff that summer: picnics at Gracie's [a special friend of the band's]; the visit to Loomis' bar to hear the band that did "Tighten Up," Archie Bell and the Drells; and a bottle of old champagne we found from like 1918 in the basement of the PAOWNYC camp.  We actually tried it.  Tasted like jet fuel.

Summer '68 ended, and Bill, Mike and the rest of The Dream all went separate ways; see the main "History of the Band" for details. But although not playing in Benefit Street, Bill remained part of its story:

My first wife, Joanne, was a fan of The Dream back when we played The Halfway House. We caught up with the band when we moved to Boston so I could attend seminary (Boston University School of Theology - yes, BUST) in the fall of 1969.  We would drive down to Providence where Joanne would hang out with Lisa [Carlson] and Denise [Roberts] while I was Benefit Street's roadie for lots of gigs almost every weekend - Boston College with Grand Funk, Bucknell U., Skidmore at the Casino in Saratoga, J. Geils, B.B. King, Firesign Theater, Quill, several outdoor concerts, a bunch of bars.  I would drive the truck and schlep gear, set up and be the sound guy.  In the summer of 1970, between semesters, I took a temporary church assignment up near the Canadian border, and the entire band came over to visit from a gig in Vermont.  I can still remember the parishioners' jaws dropping when this group of long-haired hippie freaks walked in, especially Josh - long-haired bearded Jewish guy who looked a lot like the picture on the church wall...  Some must have sworn it was the Second Coming.  I also helped officiate at Rob's wedding to Lisa in Westport.  As I recall, we continued to do the weekend roadie/groupie thing through the next school year, stopping about the time Josh and D. Noyes [Roberts] left the band.

I heard a great interview recently on Fresh Air that Terri Gross did with Peter Wolf.  I thought of all the times we did jobs with J. Geils, and how good they really were - mostly due to Peter Wolf.  As I listened to his history, I thought that, for all of the b, s, and t that we put into being a band, he really grew up in the business, lived it in a way we could only approximate, met and got to know so many musical legends, and paid the dues for the fame he has achieved.  Not to take anything away from our experience, but I thought about our "bumping into" fame and fortune and coming so close while someone we occasionally worked with got there big time.  But, like Dave said, I wouldn't trade any of it.

Bringing things up to date: I've been married to Mike's sister Pam for 21 years [2015].  I work for the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, managing a staff that relates to 85 non-profit agencies that provide services for us to people with developmental disabilities in central New York.  Joanne, the mother of my children, is now living in CA and is married to Sean, a musician (an excellent guitarist, mandolin player, etc.) who's in several groups in the Sacramento area; we have a very fine relationship.  Sean loves the album, and thinks "Bells" would have been a big hit back in the day. Personally, I'm even more impressed after listening to the CD a few times.  Paul did a really fine job of re-engineering those tapes and catching the sound of the band in all its forms. Also, the whole website history brought back more than a few good memories and made some connections I didn't even know were there. Ah, those were the days....

 

Part 4: What We're Doing Now

As of 2015, we're all still alive and well, and with our roots planted deeply in Benefit Street, many of us are still making music for love and (sometimes) money. These websites, some non-musical, will bring you up to date on some of us, in no particular order:
Rob Carlson: www.robcarlsonmusic.com
Tim Jackson:
http://timjacksonweb.com ; http://thebandthattimeforgot.org 
Paul Payton:
www.paulpayton.com ; www.presenceproductions.com
Rev. Maddie Sifantus:
www.maddiesifantus.com
Josh Barrett:
http://www.dbdlawfirm.com
Al Silverman:
http://www.arfdigital.com
Dave Roberts: www.newportboardgroup.com

Leo Genereux (The Dreamtime Brothers):
search for the band name on YouTube
Rhode Island Popular Music Archive:
www.ripopmusic.org

 

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