Steve Waksman, Rock Musicologist

Steve Waksman, Rock Musicologist

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

(Author’s note: Last November at a meeting of the American Musicological Society, Professor Steve Waksman, who holds joint appointments in American Studies and Music at Smith College, gave a fascinating keynote paper, “A Soundman’s Journey,” about pioneering live sound engineer Bill Hanley. Waksman’s talk opened new perceptual doors for many in the room, including me. I asked him if he’d share more about his work.)

Larry Schenbeck: You have written extensively about the electric guitar, while your most recent book, This Ain’t the Summer of Lovechronicled “conflict and crossover” in heavy metal and punk. It won the 2010 Woody Guthrie Award. How did you come up as a musician? And what led you to become an academic historian?



Steve Waksman: I was born in 1967 in Simi Valley and started playing guitar when I was nine. I took lessons for a couple years but then started to learn by ear and mostly taught myself by playing along with records. At first, I was playing acoustic but I got an electric guitar when I was 13. It was a cheap Sears Les Paul knock-off that I bought from an older kid who lived down the street from me. I think I paid him $90 for it (or rather, my parents did). He had modified it with an added pickup so it looked very cool, three humbuckers in a row. It wasn’t a very good guitar, but it was my gateway drug, so to speak. At the time I was very much a fan of rock—Kiss was a big band for me as a kid, and so were Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix. Basically, my music fandom began with 1970s hard rock and metal and evolved from there to include progressive rock, jazz/rock fusion, punk and hardcore. Being a guitarist was a really important part of my fandom, but I was never in bands growing up. My experience as a musician at the time was very solitary. I started going to shows in L.A. with friends of mine in high school. First show was the Police in 1983, followed by David Bowie. But most of the shows I went to at the time were big arena shows featuring metal artists: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Dio, and many others.

LS: And the academic part?

SW: I was always a voracious reader as a kid. Almost as soon as I started getting more involved with music, I realized I enjoyed reading about it. The stimulus, as far as I can remember, was the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times, which had Leonard Feather writing jazz reviews and Robert Hilburn as the main pop critic, with other contributors who reported on national trends and the local scene. I started subscribing to Rolling Stone when I was 13 or 14, and then a big acquisition was the Rolling Stone Record Guide. It had thousands of reviews and led me to all sorts of music I would never have discovered otherwise. I also became a regular reader of Guitar Player, and that was very influential because it was so inclusive with regard to genre—it didn’t matter if it was country or jazz or rock or blues. All of that fed my interest in popular music history long before I dreamed of writing some of that history myself.

LS: Your first book, Instruments of Desire, explored the ways in which Americans used this new device—the electric guitar—to tell different cultural stories. Can you talk a little about that?

SW: In a sense, Instruments of Desire was the byproduct of my reading Guitar Player for all those years. I knew some of the guitar histories out at the time like Tom Wheeler’s American Guitars—which is a great book—but there were all these coffee table books about guitars, and I thought a different sort of history could be written. Also, as a grad student in history at the time—this is in 1992/93—I wanted to find a dissertation topic that would hold my interest. What better than a history of the electric guitar!


LS: You wanted to bring something new to that.

SW: I think my innovation was putting together the technical history of the instrument, how it was designed and invented, with the musical history and then with the social history. It was the social history that was really lacking in most books. I also wanted to understand on a more fundamental level why the electric guitar became such a phenomenally important invention. Why do we like it loud? So I was thinking about volume and distortion and the impact they have on us as listeners and players. This led me to the insight that the electric guitar’s importance wasn’t just that it allowed players to be louder, it gave them a new level of control over their sound.

LS: Control seems important to everyone, yet for different reasons.

SW: There’s a world of difference between how Les Paul sounds and how Jimi Hendrix sounds, but both of them recognized that amplification and other technologies had creative implications no one had tapped. Looking deep into that history you see that the sound of the guitar has connotations that aren’t just musical. Sometimes it’s also political, as with Hendrix’s version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Or Bob Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. “Going electric” in that place, at that time, was a major statement.

LS: Ever since, people have argued about what that “major statement” actually meant. In Boston, you opened your talk by examining multiple interpretations that became attached to Newport-’65-Dylan.

SW: A lot of people already think they know what happened: Dylan plugged in and caused a shockwave that coursed through the rock and folk scenes alike. But why should using an electric guitar or bass create such drama? Was the electric guitar so controversial because it was perceived as untraditional, out of keeping with the values of the folk revival? Or perhaps because it was too associated with pop, which, to a lot of diehards, was the antithesis of folk? Both assumptions are correct to a point, but it’s a mistake to draw too strict a line between “folk” and “pop” or “rock.” Change was already in the air, but Dylan gave it stronger momentum because many folk fans had invested in him as a beacon of “authentic” values.


LS: That is the standard story.

SW: There’s a whole other way to look at that performance. What does it mean to “go electric,” to “plug in”? It’s not like electric guitars were new in 1965. But the evidence suggests that Dylan’s band was louder than expected, louder even than most live rock bands (let alone folk bands) at the time. If so, that was because a sound system was in place—at Newport, in 1965—that was louder than most. The question then becomes, who put that system together? And the answer is Bill Hanley, whose importance to the history of live production is well-known among audio engineers but largely unrecognized by others.

LS: Here we are, back at why do we like it loud? What can the story of Bill Hanley tell us about that?

SW: A lot, I think. I began to understand his role in the Dylan-at-Newport saga differently after coming across a wonderfully detailed interview with him in the archive of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where I was researching my current book. Hanley did the sound at Jazz Fest for a few years in the 1970s, but well before then he had figured out how to produce sound more effectively at outdoor music festivals, getting his big start at the Newport Jazz and Folk Fests of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In the interview, Hanley talks about his role doing Dylan’s sound at Newport. I was struck by his remarks, in part because other sources differ: British record producer Joe Boyd, for example, claims he was working the sound for Dylan’s set and makes no mention of Hanley at all.

LS: So why believe Hanley?

SW: His account was so vivid! He had a technician’s way of explaining why Dylan’s set that day might have provoked a strong reaction. According to Hanley, Dylan was playing at a volume that really pushed the limits of the system Hanley was using for the festival as a whole, and it caused the system to distort—though he couldn’t say whether the distortion was due to Dylan and his band way overdriving their own amps or due to the P.A. system working at capacity. Either way, Hanley’s account stresses that what the crowd was hearing that day was much more complicated than Dylan “going electric.” Not everyone liked it loud. Some people loved it, and others thought the world was going to end. So, who gets credit for that performance? The artist can be praised for boldly going against the grain of his audience’s expectations. Without Hanley’s contribution, though, what Dylan played that night would not have had the same impact. Bill Hanley—the soundman—made Dylan’s choice to “plug in” a choice that would reverberate at the time, and forever after.

LS: Let’s touch on Hanley’s career after Newport ’65.

SW: This is where it seemed like Hanley was everywhere that mattered. His first big venture outside the orbit of the Newport festivals was doing sound for the Beatles at Shea Stadium. This was in 1966, the second Shea Stadium concert for the band. When they had played there in 1965, it was a milestone in the history of rock concert production, but the sound was famously bad. Shea was a newly built venue at the time. They just used the house P.A., which was not really designed for amplifying music. So when the Beatles returned, the promoter Sid Bernstein brought in Hanley, known by then as the go-to guy if you wanted quality sound production for a live event of a certain scale. Hanley had developed a strong system with four RCA 600-watt amps he got off a battleship, but that still wasn’t enough to overpower the screaming fans. He built a custom system for that concert including a specially designed mixing console. Around that time Hanley was using Langevin AM-16 mic preamps as the basis for his consoles, and he ran each line with its own EQ. He called it a turning point not just in his own career but in the general evolution of concert sound. From that point forward, levels would just keep getting louder.

A couple years later, he was brought in by Bill Graham to design the system for the Fillmore East. That was another groundbreaking move, because most venues at the time did not have sound systems tailored to the music. Bands had their own sound people who would set up the touring P.A. equipment, so it took longer to prepare for gigs. Also, the sound in a given venue wouldn’t be standard. Graham wanted to have something more reliable and predictable in place, and that’s what Hanley gave him. For the Fillmore East Hanley used twenty-six speakers distributed around the hall, with total power of 35,000 watts. He also built a set of speakers hanging over the stage that used a unique system of weighted supports. It was very much state-of-the-art, one of the reasons so many bands would record their live albums at the venue, most famously the Allman Brothers.

LS: And after that, Woodstock?

SW: Right, Woodstock. Almost certainly the thing for which Hanley will be best remembered.

(We’ll pick this up in Copper #103, in which Steve describes Hanley’s work at Woodstock and offers thoughts about the Hanley legacy.)

(Photos of Steve Waksman by Julian Parker-Burns.)

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