Mountain’s Corky Laing picked up two gold records for his Woodstock performances—without stepping foot anywhere near Yasgur’s Farm.
To most, Corky Laing’s drumming is synonymous with the great heavy-rock band Mountain, and vice versa. Less known is the fact that Laing wasn’t the band’s only drummer. In fact, N. D. Smart was in the hot seat for the band’s early performances—including their gig at the original Woodstock Festival in August of 1969.
“I remember that Norman Smart was a very good player,” recalls Corky Laing today, “but he wasn’t right stylistically. He was more of a country drummer, and not loud enough for what the music called for. So when producer/bassist Felix Pappalardi asked me if I was available and could I cut the gig…well, I guess the rest is history.
“The fact that I got two gold records from two songs at the festival still blows my mind,” Laing laughs. “The story of the first one, for the Mountain song ‘For Yasgur’s Farm,’ goes like this: When they were mixing the Woodstock soundtrack, I had just joined up with Mountain and was laying down initial tracks for the album Mountain Climbing! with Felix and guitarist Leslie West. Felix was also producing my band Energy at the time, and he loved our song
‘Who Am I But You and the Sun.’ Felix changed the title to ‘For Yasgur’s Farm,’ and offered it to the album’s producers. That’s how I received my first Woodstock gold record. [While not included on either of the two original Woodstock LPs, Music from the Original Soundtrack and More and Woodstock Two, Mountain’s performance of the song at the festival would eventually come out on the 2009 box set Woodstock 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm.]
“Here’s where lightning strikes twice,” Corky continues. “In September of ’69, while recording Mountain Climbing! at the Record Plant, I got a knock on my door from some folks who asked Felix and Leslie if they could borrow me for about an hour to record with Ten Years After, on their famed song, ‘I’m Going Home.’ Apparently while recording onstage at the Woodstock concert, drummer Ric Lee’s drum microphones conked out, so the entire song, which highlights Alvin Lee’s guitar virtuosity, needed to be rerecorded. Ric was now back home in England, so I got the nod.
“So there I was, trying to keep up with Alvin, who I’m sure had consumed some serious medication. The song went from 100 bpm to 200 bpm, constantly speeding up and speeding up. Little did I know it would clock in at something like twenty-two minutes long! It was a basic ‘oom-pah’ beat, but the timing was all over the place. The point being, I was exhausted! Wouldn’t you know, about a month later comes another knock on my door, and they hand me a package with yet another gold record, for ‘I’m Going Home.’ Looking back, I just happened to be there in the studio. It’s all about luck—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”
Letters to Sarah
Our Mountain man releases a heartfelt autobiography
It’s not unusual for celebrated musicians to write their story, especially at pivotal points in their career. Corky Laing, whose storytelling abilities are legendary, has joined the ranks with his own autobiography, Letters to Sarah.
The book is not your typical tell-all filled with sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and celebrity name-dropping. Sure, there’s a bit of that, but more engaging is Laing’s keen perspective on his profession, defined by his honest, often humorous take on things. The mechanism here is Corky’s personal correspondences with his mother, Sarah, who passed in 1998 and who was both his muse and his Rock of Gibraltar. Despite the ups and downs of the drummer’s showbiz existence, Sarah never wavered in support of his endeavors, regardless of risk. Corky’s letters to her mark several key life occurrences and are featured throughout the text.
Laing begins by documenting his story from humble beginnings as a shy kid from Montreal, Canada, to reaching the pinnacle of his drumming career with bassist/ producer Felix Pappalardi and guitarist Leslie West in America’s favorite heavy-rock trio, Mountain, and the subsequent supergroup West, Bruce, and Laing. That level of super-stardom was short-lived, however, and ascents were followed by major descents, both emotionally and physically. The ’80s came fast and were a time for seasoned rockers like Laing to redefine (or more accurately, repackage) themselves. While Corky was not spared, his positivity and diverse approach to music played a major factor in his surviving format changes and drum machines. Segueing to the ’90s, he once again found himself “diversifying” with two stints as a label executive—until the record industry crashed in 2000.
Since then, though, Laing has survived and remained busy. He’s given guest lectures at universities in Canada, the U.K., and Finland, and he’s presented in international academic conferences, covering topics ranging from the history of rock music and changes in the music industry to developing drumming, marketing, and producing skills. More recently, in 2012 and 2013, he was a featured performer in the off –Broadway production of Playing God; two years later he hit the road again billed as Corky Laing Plays Mountain. And this year finds him featured on a new album, The Toledo Sessions, with bassist Mark Mikel and guitarist Chris Shutters.
In short, Letters to Sarah offers a heartfelt study of a man in search of a nesting place in a business devoid of permanency. Laing’s passion, determination, and—above all—resiliency make this a very special read indeed.