Woodstock at 50: A conversation with Sally Mann Romano — a 1960s rock-n-roll survivor, lawyer, writer, and animal lover.
By Michael McCord
First things first: Sally Mann Romano was at Woodstock in August 1969. She was there with the Jefferson Airplane, her close friends, and as girlfriend of Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden. Unfortunately, hours after she arrived, she became deathly ill and had to be airlifted by helicopter out that night.
Yet, all things considered, Romano’s Woodstock sojourn was possibly the 1,000th most interesting about her life (for example: 24 years later Romano was pardoned by then Texas Gov. Ann Richards so she could become a practicing lawyer).
I came across Romano earlier this year on Twitter when I saw mention of her recently-published memoir The Band’s with Me: TOUR 1964–1975 about her adventures as a young woman (then Sally Mann) among the California rock-n-roll elite. As I was in the midst of finishing the final draft of a book, I put a mental check mark by her name to learn more about the book. And then weeks later, as writers are wont to do, I bought her book and binge-read it over a weekend while I was maniacally putting the final touches on my own because, of course, a diversion from the urgent task at hand was the smart thing to do.
What a delightful diversion it was. There are memoirs and then there is what Romano achieves. She is colorful, brutally frank, witty and wicked, affectionate, hilariously unsentimental looking back on her own self-destructive and self-indulgent whims, and profound when it matters. It’s all done in a hard-to-pull-off stream of consciousness narrative style. She is a unique storyteller with three lifetimes of stories to tell. Her book is wonderfully gossipy, full of amazing era photos, and an eye-opening A to Z Rolodex (Alvin Lee to Frank Zappa) of lovers, liaisons, friends, acquaintances & foes across her decade-long Yellow Brick Road journey — from the Dave Clark 5 in her native Houston to impulsively leaving San Francisco to live with Richard Manuel of The Band in Malibu to ho-hum joining a Stephen Stills tour to Alaska (without, ah, proper clothing for winter in said Alaska).
In the book, Romano is unsparing of herself and others about the music industry drug and decadence lifestyle ravages of the late-1960s to mid-1970s. This combination of the comic, manic, and sobering authenticity gives the book a powerful potency — the sum greater than many already stellar individual parts. As her friend Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane wrote in the book’s foreword about life in the era: “A lot of people think they would love that life but when faced with the real deal it can be a daunting prospect. Sally lived in it, around it and through it. I have no idea why either one of us is alive.”
Of course, I had to interview Romano and reached out to her last month. Now living on an animal ranch in Texas, she was gracious with her time and thoughts.
What do you remember about Woodstock?
Like everyone else, the abiding memory is just sheer awe at the size of the crowd. We flew in around late morning or midday on Saturday. We had played lots of outdoor festivals that summer so, as I recall, we were expecting something along those lines. I write in the book about the amazement of seeing 400,000+ folks gathered together in one place. It was just stunning. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I am profoundly grateful to have been there. I remember Chip Monck and his mastery of the stage and rough conditions. I got ill on Saturday — late afternoon, as the weather changed, and was flown out probably around 10 p.m.
What were the challenges for performers like Jefferson Airplane?
(By the time they played) they were exhausted, originally scheduled to play on Saturday afternoon, and had been up all night like everyone else. They had been sitting on a wooden stage without anything of note to eat for about 18 hours, so I think they did pretty damn well under the circumstances. As I said, I think I was incredibly fortunate to have been there, to have met the people I met, and my overarching emotion is one of gratitude: that I was there, and that Grace and I made it this far when so many of our contemporaries didn’t.
Earlier that year (February 1969) you were part of a Rolling Stone issue titled “Groupies and Other Women in Rock”. How did you like being stereotyped?
I did the photo shoot and interview some time before the “Groupie” issue came out, and by the time it did, Spencer and I were very involved. Mostly, we found it hysterically funny — I loved the photo by Baron, but hated the interview. I’m on record in countless interviews over the decades as not being a fan of the term, but I’m too old to care anymore, especially since I’ve been dining out on it for 50 years! And as I always say, once you marry the guy, you’re no longer a groupie. It’s the law.
How did The Band’s with Me come into being?
It was not always in my mind to write a book, although it had definitely occurred to me at various times during the intervening years since the events described. Here’s how it came about:
I have been writing for almost my entire life, but during my legal career, I wrote a lot of law-related articles and appellate briefs for my firm and for other attorneys, after being published as a short-fiction writer — I also worked as a typesetter, proofreader, and copy-editor, and am widely detested for being inordinately fond of fonts, the Oxford comma, and proper grammar. A friend of mine, knowing all this, asked me to copy-edit his own memoir, which I did, and while I was working on that project, he went into a partnership to form a small publishing company based in Oregon.
Around this same time, because of my long-time association with the Airplane, I was asked to write a piece about JA in connection with the launch of rock photographer Herbie Greene’s commercial website. It was quite well-received and led to an inquiry from the publishing firm: would I would be willing to submit a chapter outline for a proposed memoir? I did that, and we decided to proceed with the memoir. As you probably know, the title is a play on Pamela Des Barres’s book, I’m With the Band. I had originally conceived of and written some of the chapters as stand-alone vignettes, but when the idea of the book took shape, I adapted them to a chronological narrative form.
About three or four years ago, I was asked by Time-Life to submit a piece for inclusion in their upcoming book commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead, which I did, and a longer version of that submission appears on their website under the title “Houston, We Have a Problem.” This particular vignette was reworked and is now included in the book under that same chapter title. Recently, I was contacted by LIFE, and the GD book is being reissued, with my piece to be included again.
What kind of detour did the project take?
My “divorce” from the original publisher came about for two primary reasons. First, I began to realize their ideas about production values were radically different from what I had envisioned, particularly with regard to the spectacular pictures that I had been given unrestricted license to use. To be
clear, I didn’t envision that they would produce a coffee table book by any means — the text is clearly and by far the most important thing — but I also came to believe that the photography would end up being disrespected, and that would have been such a terrible affront to these incredibly talented photographers who have been so generous with me.
More important, though, as the first edits began to come in from their end, I began to realize that, frankly they did not have much of a sense of humor, or at least didn’t appreciate the sense of humor in my style — nor were they attuned to jokes about rock stars and their frailties and foibles in the 1960s and ’70s. They also objected to my footnotes and that was a hill I was willing to die on. It got to the point that I was dreading seeing the editing revisions and I had lost confidence in what the type would look like on the page. The entire process was making me sick to my stomach. We ended up parting ways amicably, and I was released from my contract.
By this time, the writing process had taken about three or so years, working a few hours a day. I have an animal sanctuary, which keeps me busy, and I also do occasional legal work. I worked on it sporadically in the beginning, but as it began to come together, it became part of my daily routine. After I went back and did serious editing, reduced the number of footnotes, and then began working with a couple of agents. At the end of the day, though, I really, really wanted my dear friend, George Gruel — a monster talent, photographer, and author of a photo book about Warren Zevon, who he used to manage — to design the book. He had used Blurb before, and I was extremely tired of mucking around with submissions, etc., so we worked out a partnership deal, he put the photos and book design together, and it was a done deal. By the time the book was released in November 2018, I think it had been about 4 years since I had submitted a chapter outline.
What were the main challenges writing it?
Well, memory is a tricky thing, and while I was helped a great deal by the chapter outline I had done — in that I already knew the anecdotes I intended to include — verifying dates of certain events, gigs, and that sort of thing took a lot of research. I also was determined that all product names, etc., would not be anachronistic, and while some of those mentions were embellished for comedic effect, I spent many hours researching the cultural references. I talked to a lot of folks to make sure that my memory of certain anecdotes was not entirely off base — after all, it’s my memoir, though, so I went with my own recollections. As Grace and I always say, who the hell is around to contradict us anymore?
The discipline of writing something every day is always challenging, but over time, I developed a routine around the barn and animal chores here, and I was able to stay fairly focused. Coming up with the photographs of folks like John Mayall and Alvin Lee was a task in and of itself, but George is a master at that kind of thing, and together we got it done. Fortunately, I was able to reach out to Alvin’s surviving bandmates and John’s tour people, and they pointed me in the right direction.
What did you come away with at the end of the process?
As far as coming away with something, I suppose I am still amazed that the damn thing got written, produced, and released, and I am left with a tremendous feedling of relief that it is done and has been pretty well received. Not that I recommend this, I did my own copy editing, which is just 100 percent verboten, as I’m sure you know, and I am thrilled that no one has come forward with any huge snafus. I also had to make a decision as to whether people would get the fact that the strike-throughs were a joke, but I decided that most of my audience were pretty sharp folks, so I’m glad I stuck to my guns on those and especially the footnotes. All in all, I’m pretty proud of the whole thing and absolutely thrilled that most of the surviving friends who are part of the story have all liked the book very much.
What happened the next 10–15 years after the book?
At the end of the ’70s, I returned to Texas and began working with my father at his company. I struggled with alcohol and drug abuse until I got sober in 1985. Some of these years were very, very difficult. In 1986, I reunited with my high school boyfriend, Rock Romano, an amazing musician from Houston, and we married in 1987. It was a fantastic turn of events and we were very happy for a number of years — until we weren’t. He is still my best friend and the best person I know.
How did you end up in Texas, become a lawyer, and run an animal ranch?
I was born in Texas and, as I said above, came back here at the end of the ’70s to see my family and work alongside my father in his business. After I got sober, I went back to university in 1989 with the goal of going on to law school (something I had always wanted to do), became a Truman Scholar (the domestic equivalent of a Rhodes scholarship), won a full-ride scholarship to Emory Law School, and after graduation with distinction, practiced law in Houston at a civil litigation firm. Things happened, too complicated to describe, including a divorce, and I moved to a small farm outside Houston. I have been an animal person all my life — I had horses, dogs, and cats as a child and throughout my life. I was badly injured in 2005, which nearly resulted in my right leg being amputated, and had some real difficulties until about 2010. After I came through on the other side, a friend of mine saw an advertisement for the place where I currently live in Huntsville — it’s an 8-acre farm and I am able to have the horses, dogs, and cats out here — I rescued quite a few feral cats from Houston and their progeny are the cats that live here now.
How are your relationships with your sons?
My oldest son, Rory, lives in New York, where he is an amazingly talented artist and advertising guru — I have a great long-distance relationship with him and his beautiful family. He has grown into a very successful person and fantastic father. We are not as close as we might be if he lived nearer, or if he had grown up with me, but he grew up in New York with his dad, who also did a fantastic job at parenting, and we have an affinity for one another that is not affected by the geographic distance between us. I have two beautiful grandkids, and they are doing very well.
Jesse, my son with Spencer, is a white-hat hacker, who lives off the grid. I have always had a very close relationship with him — up until he went off the grid entirely. It’s not something I’m really able to talk about — he is very mysterious, and that’s the way he wants it. I have to respect his decisions.
How do you assess that era from the perspective of today?
I feel incredibly fortunate to have been a part of the music and so close to so many people who were instrumental in making such a profound cultural impact. Now that I am sober, I look back on the loss of so many beautiful and talented people to drugs as a terrible tragedy, but it is what it is. I feel unspeakably grateful to have survived. In my opinion, nothing that has happened since the mid-60s through the mid-to-late 70s has been nearly as momentous — in any way. We did lots of foolish things, but we also did lots of incredibly exciting things, and we had the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and a million other one-of-a-kind bands and cultural cataclysms. Anyway, it was my 20s, so I wasn’t really expected to be the most mature person on the planet. I wish I had done some things differently, but I didn’t, and if I had, the book wouldn’t be nearly as funny.
Will you write a sequel?
I’m not planning on it right now. Things that happened after 1977 or so were not nearly as humorous, and things were chaotic in my life until I got sober in 1985. I may write about it at some point, but I’m not inclined to do so right now.
Find out more about The Band’s with Me: https://www.blurb.com/b/9043957-the-band-s-with-me
Michael McCord is an easily-distracted, New Hampshire-based journalist and writer. His latest satirical opus — End Times: More Great Adventures in Real America — was recently released.