Here's how rock stars used to travel–or so it seemed.
Here's how rock stars used to travel–or so it seemed. (Photo: Joe Mabel)

Revolution in the Air

My relationship with rock and roll—which began when I was in grade school and watching American Bandstand in the 1950s—deepened in the next decade as the music and I hit our teenage years. I started collecting records, attending lots of concerts and eventually writing about popular music for magazines and newspapers. I loved the sounds of rock and–being a typically rebellious teenager–I also loved the attitude.

The hottest musicians of the day thumbed their noses (and made gestures with another finger) at the establishment. It started, by some accounts, with Elvis Presley wriggling around on The Ed Sullivan Show. Before long, Bob Dylan was proclaiming that “everybody must get stoned” and Thunderclap Newman were singing that “the revolution’s here.” Meanwhile, Jefferson Airplane delivered the Black Panther Party-inspired “Volunteers”; Country Joe and the Fish protested the Vietnam War with “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”; and John Lennon chimed in with, “Imagine no possessions…all the people sharing all the world.” These artists of Woodstock Nation were the harbingers of a new world, and they eschewed everything about the old one, which is why they even rejected traditional transportation methods in favor of driving from concert to concert in beat-up VW busses adorned with DayGlo-colored peace signs.

Or so it seemed.

As you grow older, you learn a few things, and one thing I learned was that the part about the VW busses wasn’t exactly true. In fact, many of these anti-establishment groups weren’t even traveling via airliner: they were flying privately. The Sex Pistols (“Anarchy in the U.K.”) used business jets. So did the Rolling Stones, who never flew commercially after 1972. Bob Dylan was a private jet traveler by the late ’60s. Elvis Presley used his Convair 880 for everything–even to fly from Memphis to Denver to eat at a restaurant that offered his favorite peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. And as for the hippy-trippy Grateful Dead, who most everyone assumed were the prototypical VW bus riders, during their peak years even their crew had their own Learjet. 

You didn’t hear much about this at the time for the same reason that many corporate executives don’t like to discuss their business jet use today: it didn’t fit the image that the passengers were trying to project.

Now, of course, everything has changed. Rock bands still fly privately, but in an era when Forbes publishes lists of the best-paid musicians’ eight- and nine-figure two-year incomes, it would be pointless to suggest otherwise. In fact, instead of gathering in utilitarian airport lounges and taking off on cramped turboprops, top rock stars now depart from posh FBOs on opulent large-cabin jets that feature WiFi, high-def video, showers and bedrooms. Meanwhile, so-called Deadheads–those fanatical Grateful Dead fans who followed the band from gig to gig–are largely a thing of the past. But deadheads are still with us. Now the word most often means those charter repositioning flights that can transport you from here to there in luxury for a bit less.

Sounds pretty revolutionary to me.