A man can sure work up an appetite conducting the world’s hottest big band through some of the most innovative compositions in jazz history. The peerless melodist, pianist, and bandleader Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington brought his orchestra to Old Orchard Beach well over a dozen times between 1926 and 1961, playing to throngs of flappers on the Pier and the post-war gentry at the Palace Ballroom. Along with the likes of Cab Calloway and Count Basie, he was a repeat boarder at the Cummings’ Guest House, now on the National Register of Historic Places, a haven for black performers when Jim Crow laws barred even music royalty from lodging in OOB’s hotels. But the single most enduring Sir-Duke-in-Vacationland anecdote concerns the jazz legend’s cast-iron stomach.
The story traces back to an epic, three-part New Yorker profile published in 1944. In the story’s opening paragraph, Ellington Orchestra trombonist Sam Nanton is in the middle of praising his bandleader when he suddenly recalls a time that Ellington allegedly “ate 32 sandwiches during an intermission at a dance in Old Orchard Beach.”
“He’s a genius, all right,” Nanton declared, “but Jesus, how he eats!”
Some 12,000 words later, the article finds Ellington on a train, holding court with passengers, telling tales from the studio and the road, when the topic turns to his prodigious appetite. Like a Food Network host a few drinks into happy hour, the hard-touring Ellington starts gushing about his favorite stops for chicken stew, chow mein, crab cakes, ribs, you name it — a rambling soliloquy that extends across multiple pages.
“The best fried chicken in the world is in Louisville, Kentucky. I get myself a half-dozen chickens and a gallon jar of potato salad.”
“There’s a place in Chicago, the Southway Hotel, that’s got the best cinnamon rolls and the best filet mignon in the world.”
“I guess I’m a little freakish with lamb chops. I prefer to eat them in the dressing room, where I have plenty of room and can really let myself go.”
Ellington builds to a fever pitch, eventually keying in on OOB, singing the praises of the steaks, burgers, and hot dogs served up by a certain Mrs. Wagner. “At Old Orchard Beach, Maine,” the Duke begins, “I got the reputation of eating more hot dogs than any man in America. . . . Her hot dogs have two dogs to a bun. I ate 32 one night.” He goes on to describe the glories of the toasted buns at Mrs. Wagner’s and outlines his typical dinner there: first ham and eggs, then baked beans, then fried chicken, then steak, followed by a dessert of “applesauce, ice cream, chocolate cake, and custard.”
As his reverie winds down, Ellington gets a far-off look in his eye, then excuses himself for the dining car.
The identity of the indomitable “Mrs. Wagner,” who apparently served Duke Ellington 64 hot dogs in a single sitting, is lost to history. (“Sounds pretty farfetched to me,” said bemused OOB town historian Dan Blaney.) But the anecdote has congealed into foodie myth, recounted with awe by the eminent food critic Daniel Young (who called Ellington “the king of jazz and gluttony”), food historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto (who hailed “the world’s last real heroic eater”), and other no-slouch epicures. OOB’s famous pier fries, meanwhile, were invented in 1932, but if the Duke ever inhaled a few dozen boxes, that’s lost to history too.
Pete Seeger and Bowdoin College
Defy the Blacklist
Pete Seeger arrived at Bowdoin College on the morning of March 13 seemingly in a prickly mood. The 40-year-old folkie, scheduled to play that afternoon at Bowdoin’s Pickard Theater, was tough and exacting with the student staff of the campus radio station setting up to tape his show. That was part of the deal — Seeger would play for two hours, his fee paid by the student union; a group called the Campus Chest would collect $1.25 per ticket, which they’d donate to local charities; and the folk singer would get the tapes to do with as he pleased. “I’m sure he was a good guy,” remembers Tom Holland, then WBOR’s station manager and a member of Bowdoin’s class of ’62, “but he was not fun to work with. It was like my way or the highway.”
Times were hard for Seeger. Three years earlier, he’d been indicted for contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political beliefs and past membership in the Communist Party. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked,” Seeger had declared to the legislators. As a result, the former member of the chart-topping Weavers had been blacklisted out of most American venues. His Bowdoin gig was one stop in a series of underground-ish “community concerts” — performances at sympathetic schools and community centers, launched with minimal promotion to avoid protests by the American Legion and others. Bowdoin’s Campus Chest had been planning their fundraising weekend for months; Seeger was announced just 17 days beforehand.
“Basically, Pete Seeger was on the run,” Holland says. “He wanted to get in and get out.”
Joel Sherman, then a junior from Lynn, Massachusetts, was the chairman of Campus Chest. No one remembers just how the group booked Seeger, he says — possibly someone’s father had a connection. The concert was big news on the sleepy campus, where student activism was only beginning to stir in the final year of the Eisenhower administration. Tickets quickly sold out.
Seeger seemed stiff as he warmed up, as if he wasn’t sure what to expect from the crowd of largely privileged students. But by his fourth song, a traditional shanty called “Deep Blue Sea,” he and the audience were trading choruses and laughter, and the applause was thunderous. Seeger sang 32 songs that afternoon, from Weavers hits like “Wimoweh” and “Goodnight Irene” to more subversive anti-war and pro-labor tunes. Holland remembers sitting so rapt that, today, he has no recollection of the woman sitting next to him, only that he brought a date. “He had us,” he says. “We were right with him.”
All this would be only the stuff of memory if not for those WBOR tapes that Seeger had demanded. For the next 40-plus years, they sat on a shelf in the office of Moses Asch, the founder of Seeger’s record label, Folkways Records. When Asch died in 1986, the Smithsonian acquired his 4,000-tape archive. It was years more before Smithsonian curator and producer Jeff Place pressed play on the Bowdoin tapes and realized he was listening to something special. The campus radio station had been overhauled the year before with state-of-the-art equipment, and the student engineers — for all Seeger’s badgering — knew what they were doing: the recording quality was superb.
In 2012, Smithsonian Folkways released The Complete Bowdoin College Concert, 1960 — Seeger’s oldest complete concert recording and the only one from his “community concerts” phase. The album is already a classic of the American folk canon, its sharpness almost shocking, its intimacy deeply moving.
“You can almost hear his fingers scraping on the banjo strings,” an awed Place told a documentarian in 2012. “This is the prime period of Pete Seeger’s music. To catch him live, this well recorded? It’s kind of an amazing historical item.”
Dick Curless was a small-time country-music striver before a cold call from a part-time Bangor disc jockey changed his life. The eyepatch-wearing, burly-baritoned Fort Fairfield native had cut a few tracks with a small Maine label, was a modest hit on local radio, and had a standing gig and loyal following at a Bangor watering hole called the Silver Dollar.
Dan Fulkerson, meanwhile, was a young copywriter and DJ who often hitchhiked north from Bangor to see his ex-wife and kids in Aroostook County. At the time, the still-new interstate didn’t extend to Maine’s crown — or, for that matter, to Bangor — so Fulkerson caught rides with truckers along rural Route 2A, through the Haynesville Woods. A budding songwriter, he penned some lyrics about the winding, lonely road, and about the many potato-hauling truckers who’d apparently been killed negotiating its hairpin turns in winter. He had Johnny Cash in mind for “A Tombstone Every Mile,” but when he learned that Curless lived in Bangor, he called him up to pitch his song.
Curless and Fulkerson brought a band into Bangor’s WABI radio studio that fall, cut the track, and split the cost to press a few thousand copies, which they mailed to regional radio stations. Within weeks, demand was so high, they pressed 20,000 copies more. Capitol Records got wind of the track’s success, reissued it, and rocketed Dick Curless to #5 on Billboard’s country music chart.
The underpinnings of “trucker music” were in place in 1964, as ethnomusicologist Clifford Murphy explains in his 2014 paper “The Diesel Cowboy in New England.” The long-haul industry was booming, thanks to the recent establishment of the interstate system, and regional record labels disenchanted with Nashville’s increasingly slick, commercial sound were churning out radio tracks and jukebox records for the blue-collar fellas logging long hours behind the wheel. A handful of tunes had already set the template: rockabilly-influenced songs about the perils of sleeplessness, sharp curves, and the loneliness of the open highway. “A Tombstone Every Mile” came on the heels of Dave Dudley’s 1963 chart-topper “Six Days on the Road.” It made radio the same month as Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” A wave of trucker tunes dropped in the wake of Curless’s “Tombstone,” and by the late ’60s, trucker music was firmly entrenched as its own country subgenre. Curless — whose next few hits included “Travelin’ Man,” “‘Tater Raisin’ Man,” and “Hard, Hard Traveling Man” — drove that rig as hard as anybody until his death in 1995.
What’s more, Curless’s success struck a blow against the creeping perception of country music as an exclusively Southern product. “A Tombstone Every Mile,” Murphy writes, “galvanized a regional and national subgenre of trucker music and transformed Curless from regional star to national symbol of Maine’s country music authenticity.” The “baron of country music,” as he became known, was among the inaugural inductees to the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame. You’ll find a load of Curless memorabilia if you convoy out to the group’s headquarters in Mechanic Falls. — B.K.
Damariscotta Becomes Joni Mitchell's Mecca
A critical darling and one of music’s most iconic road albums, Joni Mitchell’s eighth studio record, Hejira, takes its title from the prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina. The record finds Mitchell dabbling in jazz — having “all but abandoned melodies anyone can whistle,” as Rolling Stone put it — strewing imagery of roadside Americana amid romantic reflections on wanderlust, loneliness, and escape. It was inspired, Mitchell has said, by a quixotic cross-country road trip to and from the midcoast village of Damariscotta.
“The idea was cooked up on the beach at Neil Young’s house,” writes Mitchell biographer David Yaffe. A pair of Mitchell’s acquaintances had stopped by — one was a flight attendant, the other a former boyfriend, an Australian on a temporary visa with a daughter living in coastal Maine. The Australian wanted to leave Los Angeles and drive 3,200 miles to retrieve his child from her mom’s family. “We were going to kidnap this guy’s daughter from the wicked grandmother,” Mitchell told a radio interviewer years later. “We were just companions to his intent, you know? He was like the worried father driving to get — it was one of these custody battles, like you see these kids on milk cartons now.” Mitchell and the flight attendant signed on for the trip, and Mitchell volunteered her car. If Neil Young was invited, he seems to have declined — perhaps wisely.
“I was driving without a driver’s license,” Mitchell told a reporter in 2006. “I had to stay behind truckers because they signal you when cops are ahead.” The trio was hampered by breakdowns, and Mitchell — coming off a breakup and a turbulent tour — was trying, with mixed success, to kick a cocaine habit. She and her companions detoured through Ontario, arriving in Maine just after Easter.
What happened when they got to Damariscotta remains a mystery. (As one acquaintance told us, “I’ve been trying to get this story out of Joni for years.”) All the songwriter has said is that she left her passengers in Maine following a fling with the airline steward — it inspired the album’s song “Strange Boy,” in which Mitchell describes their dalliance playing out in a stuffy New England B&B. She drove alone to Florida, using a wig and a fake name, then hung a right and made a slow trip home through the South and Southwest, writing songs as she went, finding solace in the miles. When it was time to name the album, Mitchell has said, she wanted something that implied an honorable escape from danger. Upon her return to California, she went straight into the studio — Maine and all she was escaping in her rear-view mirror. — B.K.
Editor’s note: A reader writes to tell us she remembers staying at Newcastle’s historic Newcastle Inn sometime in the mid-’70s and playing a piano in the inn’s basement. The innkeeper, she says, mentioned a young musician from California named Joni Mitchell had recently been a guest and played the same piano. The lyrics of Mitchell’s “Strange Boy” mention playing an old piano in an inn, “in a cellar full of antique dolls.” Julie Bolthuis, the Newcastle Inn’s current owner, confirms that a previous owner had and displayed an extensive doll collection.
Elvis Never Arrives in the Building
On the evening of August 16, Elvis Presley was supposed to board a plane for Portland and spend the next two nights kicking off a 10-city tour at the Forest City’s brand-new Cumberland County Civic Center. He’d just played Maine for the first time that May, a lively show at the Augusta Civic Center that fans remember as a standout from a year that otherwise saw the 42-year-old King of Rock ’n’ Roll in rapid decline.
Today, no one bats a mascara-lined eye at the notion of a 42-year-old rock star. Jack White is 42. Neil Young is 72. But 1977 was the year that the Sex Pistols’ 21-year-old Johnny Rotten famously slagged 33-year-old Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters for being out of touch with the kids.
By those standards, Elvis was unquestionably a has-been — and he looked the part. Steady diets of prescription drugs and fried peanut-butter-banana-and-bacon sandwiches had taken their toll. In July of that year, a tell-all book called Elvis: What Happened? publicly outed the King for his drug abuse. He could still fill a B-tier auditorium, sure, but Elvis — once a symbol of sex, danger, and youthful exuberance — had become a parody of schlocky Vegas-style decadence. (Onstage, he sometimes seemed to acknowledge as much. “I’m Wayne Newton,” he wryly told the crowd in Augusta.)
A few hours before his Portland flight, Elvis retired to the master suite of his Graceland mansion to rest up for the trip. Later that afternoon, his girlfriend found him dead of heart failure on the bathroom floor.
The next morning, 17,000 ticket holders in Maine woke up to find news of Elvis’s death splashed across every paper. Some were in denial. The Portland Press Herald reported being “besieged with calls from people who, disbelieving what their radios and televisions told them, sought verification.” Others, the paper said, descended on the civic center “to ask if Elvis was really dead.”
The venue became the site of an ad hoc shrine. Fans piled up flowers, photos, and other tributes. Dick Edwards, the president of Maine’s unofficial fan club, True Fans for Elvis, helped convince officials to hold a memorial service at the civic center in lieu of the scheduled concerts. Edwards, of Mechanic Falls, had helped found the club just weeks before, in the wake of the Augusta concert. “There’s an awful lot of us fans that are in grief individually,” he told a reporter. “I’d like to get together much like a family would under the circumstances.”
And so, on August 18, the civic center placed a giant portrait of the King onstage, pumped Elvis tunes over the PA, and invited ticket holders to sit and grieve. The event was intimate — as Edwards had suggested, a bit like a family wake — in part because the civic center insisted on punching tickets, and many fans, preferring their unpunched keepsakes, stayed home. Still, reporters converged on the memorial, and the Associated Press sent somber dispatches from the event all across the country.
For those who didn’t attend, the civic center (now the Cross Insurance Arena) continued honoring refunds for the next 40 years. The last glum fan to come asking for his $15 back was in 2006.
Jonathan Richman left suburban Boston for New York City in 1969 to learn at the feet of the Velvet Underground, couch-crashing with the band’s manager and basking in frontman Lou Reed’s aura at show after show. The band he formed when he moved back to Boston, The Modern Lovers, mimicked the Velvets’ style of stripped-down, three-chord rock, but Richman traded lyrical themes of scuzzed-out city life for a more innocent and pastoral tableau. By the time their first album hit shelves in 1976, spawning the seminal hit “Roadrunner,” the original Modern Lovers had split up. Richman put out some solo-ish records — each more playful and childlike than the last — toured the globe, and garnered a cult following. Rock critics warmed to his hooky and wide-eyed songwriting and started uttering his name with the same reverence as Reed’s.
Then, at the turn of the ’80s, Richman dropped off the musical radar and popped up in rural Maine.
Mike Hurley didn’t recognize the shy man with the guitar who walked into his downtown Belfast bar in 1981. The Belfast Café was a mildly bohemian joint that appealed to the region’s many back-to-the-landers (some locals called it a “fern bar”). Hurley booked music there every weekend, and the walk-in fellow asked about a gig.
“I said, ‘Sure, what kind of music do you do?’” Hurley, now 67, recalls. “He goes, ‘Oh, I don’t know, kind of by-myself guitar rock ’n’ roll.’” When the stranger offered to play a bit, one of Hurley’s regulars perked up at the sound of his voice.
“His head just kind of snapped,” Hurley says. “And he goes, ‘Mike! That’s Jonathan Richman!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, who’s that?’”
Down the street, Barbara Johnson (now Doyle) ran Barbara’s Place, a diner and cocktail bar popular with shift workers from the town’s sardine- and poultry-processing plants. She was prepping food one afternoon that spring when a lanky 20-something walked in, introduced himself, and said he lived in the nearby farm town of Appleton.
“He said, ‘I’d like to play for you,’” Doyle, now 82, remembers. “My first question was, ‘How much would you charge me?”
She booked him for well less than the $75 per night Hurley had offered, but Richman didn’t seem to mind. The musician who could sell out theaters in New York and London now had two steady Maine gigs.
His off-kilter, juvenile charisma won over crowds at both venues, and both Doyle and Hurley recall their patrons’ favorite tune: a two-minute clap-along called “I’m a Little Dinosaur.” During performances, Richman crawled around on all fours, wiggling his butt and singing from his knees about a baby dino who doesn’t fit the modern world and decides to run away. Hurley still marvels that the singer pulled it off at his neighbor’s blue-collar tavern.
“Barbara’s Place was definitely a rough-and-tumble,” he says. “You had to have some cajones to walk into that place, stand on the stage, and do ‘I’m a Little Dinosaur.’”
That December, Richman performed “I’m a Little Dinosaur” at Barbara Doyle’s wedding reception. Her first inkling of his renown was when her future son-in-law pointed out her wedding singer in an issue of Rolling Stone. The next summer, Richman invited Doyle and her husband to his own wedding, in Appleton, where he also performed.
“Sang all the way through it! I wasn’t sure he was married!” she says. “It was a different wedding than I’d ever been to.”
By 1983, Richman’s Maine stint was up, and he started releasing records again. In the ’90s, his cult celebrity got a bump with a string of quirky performances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and a film role as the troubadour narrator in There’s Something About Mary. He still writes to Doyle, some 40 years after first visiting Barbara’s Place, but she’s at a loss to explain her friend’s brief exile on High Street. There’s no asking Richman, who famously shuns interviews, but the answer might be as simple as the earnest love for the bucolic that’s evident in his lyrics. “I’ve seen old Israel’s arid plain,” sings Richman in “New England,” a favorite of the Belfast crowds. “It’s magnificent, but so is Maine.”
Josh Roiland is a journalism professor and writer in Bangor.
The Grateful Dead Leave
Their Demo in Cape Elizabeth
Like many of their Cape Elizabeth High School classmates, identical twins Scott and Craig Herrick got jobs at Inn by the Sea when the luxe resort opened in 1985. When the Grateful Dead showed up three years later for a pair of summer shows at Oxford’s 30,000-capacity Oxford Plains Speedway, the Herricks were working the concierge desk. The band arrived in the middle of the night, remembers Dennis McNally, the Dead’s official biographer and former publicist. They’d flown to Portland after wrapping a show in Rochester, New York, and McNally recalls the tony inn’s staff opening the kitchen to feed the hungry band and crew.
Word had gotten out about where the counterculture troubadours were staying, and some Cape Elizabethans worried the band’s presence would attract the wrong element. The previous summer, the Dead had scored an unexpected radio hit with their song “Touch of Grey,” attracting legions of new fans to their famously freewheeling concerts. On the day between the band’s Rochester and Oxford shows, Deadheads poured into Vacationland. “We shut down the state of Maine,” McNally recalls. “I-95 was closed.” With traffic snarled up statewide, the band would helicopter to the venue, some 50 miles away.
Scott Herrick doesn’t remember any fanatical Deadheads lurking about the resort, but he does recall his run-in with an American icon. The day after the band’s arrival, Jerry Garcia called the concierge desk to request a movie from the hotel’s collection (Never Cry Wolf, a 1983 adaptation of environmentalist Farley Mowat’s memoir). Scott was dispatched with the tape to Garcia’s private cottage, and the graying guitarist asked his name before retiring inside.
That night, Garcia rang again — his VCR wasn’t working. When Scott came by, Garcia greeted him by name. As he inspected the VCR, Scott mentioned the next day’s Dead show would be his first. Garcia, Scott says, asked about his other interests, and when the VCR was fixed (a disconnected cord), he invited him to sit and talk a while, if he wasn’t too busy. “What I remember most was how Jerry seemed fascinated with me,” Scott says. “I’ve never had such a relaxed conversation with a stranger.”
But a warm impression on a local kid wasn’t all the Dead left in Cape Elizabeth. A week later, local Deadhead and concert-tee–vendor Greg Martens (today, a friend of the Herricks) got a call from a pal whose girlfriend cleaned guest rooms at Inn by the Sea. She’d found a tape that the band or crew had left behind and wondered if Martens wanted it. An avid collector of Dead bootlegs, Martens had plenty already, but when he popped in the castaway cassette, he found himself listening to a crisp studio version of a Dead song he’d never heard before, then another, then another. He realized he was listening to outtakes from an album not yet released. “So I did the Deadhead thing and made copies for hundreds of people around the country,” Martens remembers. “I figured that’s why they left it in the hotel — only to end up in my hands and ears.”
Today, what fans know as the “Inn by the Sea Tape” is a cherished artifact among die-hard Deadheads, a motley little demo of rarely and never-performed songs, oddball goof-around tracks, and stripped-down versions of tunes that would later appear on the band’s final record. It’s a snapshot of the loose, unvarnished Grateful Dead that, during the band’s late period of huge venues, helicopters, and commercial success, was mostly glimpsed only by an inner circle — and occasionally by earnest high-schoolers delivering VHS tapes.
Buzz Poole is the author of Workingman’s Dead, published by Bloomsbury as part of the 33 1/3 series.
The Arcade Fire Shovel Out a Barn, Change Indie Rock
Win and Will Butler grew up outside Houston, but the brothers spent summers on Mount Desert Island, on a sprawling saltwater farm that’s been in the family for generations. Their grandfather, pedal steel virtuoso and big-band leader Alvino Rey, spent time there when he wasn’t helping his friend Leo Fender invent the electric guitar. The Butler brothers haven’t made a contribution to rock music quite as profound, but with their juggernaut band Arcade Fire, they’ve come pretty close. In 16 years and five albums (all Grammy-nominated), the six-member art-rock outfit has made elaborate orchestration cool again and nudged modern rock to a place more emotive, adventurous, and sing-along anthemic than it’s been since, say, U2’s turn-of-the-’90s heyday.
But the band got its start shoveling manure out of an MDI barn.
In summer 2002, the Butler brothers left college in Montreal and made for MDI, together with a handful of friends and Win’s then girlfriend (now wife) and founding bandmate, Régine Chassagne. The crew took up seasonal jobs, but their goal was to record in the Butlers’ circa-1800 barn. With 10 musicians, a bevy of guitars, an upright bass, a horn section, various synthesizers, and a harpist — the Butlers’ mom, accomplished jazz musician Liza Rey Butler — they needed a bit more space than your workaday garage band.
Liza and husband Ned shepherded the enterprise, cooking for a houseful of young musicians and lending mics, amps, and other recording gear. They gave the nascent Arcade Fire the run of the property. “The whole band was in the house,” Liza remembers. “Mom and Pop were in a tent in the backyard.”
Step one was to rinse the horse excrement out of the recording studio, and Liza recalls coming home to find Win and Régine wading through rivulets of manure. “They were in hip boots and had rented a power washer,” she says, “and were just hosing it down.”
The band did much of its recording in the evenings, which didn’t delight all the neighbors. A few marched over to complain. “‘You can’t do this,’ they’d say,” Liza remembers. “‘It’s awful music, and you need to shut it down.’”
Not everyone who heard the recordings agreed. The mini-album, or EP, that resulted from that summer, titled simply Arcade Fire, had many of the ingredients that would soon launch the band to fame: simple-but-indelible melodies, elaborate arrangements, nods to New Wave and French chanson, the latter tradition reflecting Régine’s Haitian and Quebecois heritage. The EP helped earn the band a recording contract with the indie label Merge, and in 2004, they released Funeral, their instantly and insanely acclaimed first full-length. (Among other things, it’s #151 on Rolling Stone’s top 500 records of all time.)
The band’s turbojet ascent turned the limited-release Arcade Fire record into an object of cult obsession. Merge remastered and re-released it to please clamoring fans in 2005; to some fanfare among the indie rock cognoscenti, it just made the ubiquitous streaming service Spotify last year.
In fall 2004, on the heels of Funeral, the members of Arcade Fire returned to MDI to record the video for “Rebellion (Lies),” the album’s first single. (Today, it’s considered something of a soaring indie masterpiece — the Arcade Fire equivalent of, say, “Hey Jude” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”) The video shows the Butlers and their bandmates marching through the streets of Southwest Harbor like pied pipers, kids trailing behind. This time around, the band was better received. “They had high-school film people helping,” Ned says. “The whole town kind of turned out.”