The Mundane Moments series of posts is an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.
Another installment, then.
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History is written by the victors.
This explains why all those 50th-anniversary-of-Woodstock stories you’re reading right now don’t include any mention of Sunlight Rider, a quartet from Connecticut who fell, shall we say, just short of glory.
But their story deserves to be heard anyway. So here, for the first time, we present the oral history of Sunlight Rider and the Woodstock Festival, as told by the four once-young men who lived it.
MIKE COVELLO, organ: You’ve heard the story of Sunlight Rider, even if you haven’t.
DONNIE ELANNA, guitarist: We were four teenage nogoodniks in high school in Stamford, Connecticut. Didn’t wanna know from school; didn’t wanna know from the football team; didn’t wanna know from varsity letters. Just wanted to play that magic rock n’ roll we heard on the radio.
WALLY DEROSIERS, drums: We’d sit in the bleachers in the cold after school, and cadge cigarettes off each other, and talk about being on Ed Sullivan someday.
DONNIE ELANNA: We’d all played a little bit — string bass in the orchestra, snare drum in the marching band, piano at the recital, that kind of thing. We got together in the basement and put our skills to new use.
MIKE COVELLO: At first we were called Six Minus Two. We never had six guys in the band — we just thought it sounded mysterious.
WALLY DEROSIERS: Then rock music started to get more colorful, so we changed our name to Sunlight Rider.
DONNIE ELANNA: Sunlight Rider. Yeah, that sounded classy. Professional.
DONNIE ELANNA: We were doing pretty good in the basement, but we knew we needed some help to make the gigs start coming. That’s where Rocky Malvelli came in. He was a friend of a friend, I forget whose.
WALLY DEROSIERS: Pirocchio “Rocky” Malvelli. I was never quite sure when to trust him. He was only six or seven years older than us but he seemed to have the inside line on all kinds of things. Some of which were even legal.
MIKE COVELLO: He was the kind of guy who could shuffle two decks of cards in each hand, while at the same time talking his way out of a felony charge.
DONNIE ELANNA: That, by the way, is not a stretch. I saw him do that very thing one time. That exact thing. It was about 1:30 in the morning outside the YMCA in Danbury, and … yeah, the Y in Danbury. Leave the past to rest, as my mother used to say.
MIKE COVELLO: Anyway, he said he would make things happen. And he was as good as his word. Not a month after we met him he had us working four nights a week at Smiley’s at the Turnpike in Norwalk.
WALLY DEROSIERS: Smiley’s. That place was mobbed to the gills.
DONNIE ELANNA: I remember what we used to say: “Smiley’s at the Turnpike … where the steak isn’t really steak.” Capisce?
WALLY DEROSIERS: We started as a Vanilla Fudge/Iron Butterfly cover band. We got real good at “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Play it three times a night and that tends to happen.
MIKE COVELLO: Then we started working up our own originals and mixing them with the covers.
DONNIE ELANNA: A lot of it was blues, really — which there ain’t nothin’ the matter with, by the way. What do you sing when you’re down and out? The blues. What do you sing when you’re happy? Again, the blues. The blues is the language of the universe.
MIKE COVELLO: We worked on our harmonies too — three parts, four parts. Harmony opens lots of doors for you. Girls enjoy harmony.
WALLY DEROSIERS: Our big original tune was called “Escape of Aeneas.” It had four parts and went on for fifteen minutes, at least. My favorite part was always the bolero ending. We built up to it long and loud, and when we got there, it hit you like the New York, New Haven and Hartford.
DONNIE ELANNA: The title “Escape of Aeneas” was Mike’s idea. He had more of an education than the rest of us skids. That’s one of my rules for a good band: You gotta have a guy in the band who reads. It gives you depths.
MIKE COVELLO: That ass Stuey Varzuk used to call it “Escape of Anus” and laugh like hell.
DONNIE ELANNA: It was probably May of 1969. In fact, I know it was, ’cause my girl was just finishing her junior year of high school. Rocky Malvelli comes into the basement, grinning ear to ear, and says, “Boys, I hooked you up with a big one.”
WALLY DEROSIERS: He’d met some guys who were arranging a big rock festival in the middle of August in Wallkill, New York. They were signing up big bands but they wanted some newer talent to mix things up. It was gonna be 50,000 people there — a real step up from Smiley’s at the Turnpike.
DONNIE ELANNA: None of us hesitated for a second. “Sign us up,” we said. A rock festival! We all saw stardom.
MIKE COVELLO: A week later or so, Rocky dropped by, still grinning that grin, and he said he’d signed the contract. We were all good to go. So we settled down to work.
WALLY DEROSIERS: Those next two or three months, those were the most intense months of my life. When we weren’t at Smiley’s, we were camped out in the basement, practicing and practicing. We didn’t barely even notice the sun rise or set. We barely even stopped to eat.
DONNIE ELANNA: I remember we talked about whether to tell our friends about Wallkill. In the end we said no. It’s our first big gig, we thought. What if it doesn’t go well? Let’s play the first big gig, and when we knock ’em dead, then we’ll come back and tell everybody. ‘Cause once we make a name for ourselves at a rock festival, we’ll be playing the big gigs every day.
WALLY DEROSIERS: Sometime around late June, we stopped seeing Rocky. He didn’t come by and we couldn’t raise him on the phone. It bothered us a little — he was our connection to Wallkill. But he said he’d signed the contract, so we just put our heads down and kept rehearsing. We weren’t gonna blow the gig by not sounding good.
DONNIE ELANNA: We bought new stage clothes, even. No matching suits for us — we wanted to show the crowd we were four individuals. I had an orange jacket and a maroon pair of bell-bottoms, and a necklace made of pinecones, for a rustic touch, like back-to-the-earth, you know.
MIKE COVELLO: The big day came, middle of August, and we got up before sunrise and loaded up our van. It felt like we were packing it with dreams.
WALLY DEROSIERS: I remember rolling through the hills of Connecticut, Stu Varzuk practically sitting in my lap, barely enough room in the van to open a bottle of Coke, and knowing in my bones that something big was about to happen.
MIKE COVELLO: As we got closer to Wallkill I started craning my neck, trying to look around every corner and over every hill. I was sure the big show was just around the bend. I was looking for a guy with a flashlight to wave us into the backstage parking lot.
DONNIE ELANNA: So we finally get to Wallkill and … no concert. No concert on the main roads. No concert on the side roads. We get our map out and we drive past every blank spot, every open field in the freaking town. No sign of a concert.
MIKE COVELLO: Finally we pass a gas station and there’s a pump jockey there with longish hair. I figured he would be straight with us. So we get out and ask him where the Wallkill rock festival is …
DONNIE ELANNA: … and he just stares at us, like we have twelve heads and a sunburn …
MIKE COVELLO: … and that’s when we learn what every hippie in the Northeast who hasn’t been locked in a basement rehearsing has known since July: There is no festival in Wallkill, because the town wouldn’t give them a permit. The festival — Woodstock — is an hour away, in someplace called Bethel.
WALLY DEROSIERS: “Sunlight Rider?” he calls, as we’re pulling frantically out of the gas station. “Break a leg!”
DONNIE ELANNA: So off goes Sunlight Rider tearing ass toward our big break in Bethel. Except, fifteen miles outside town, we get stuck in stopped traffic. Stopped stone dead.
WALLY DEROSIERS: We turn around, eyes glued to the map, and we try another road. And we get stuck again. By now hours have gone by. And we try a third road, creeping along, half-lost. And, miles and miles from Bethel, we get stuck. Again.
MIKE COVELLO: We get out of the van, on the side of the road, and we look at each other. And suddenly we all realize the same thing at once.
WALLY DEROSIERS: We have no contacts at Woodstock. We have no way to get ourselves there. We have no way to get our gear there. We are nobodies from nowhere, stuck nowhere, going nowhere. And then fists started flying.
MIKE COVELLO: We hated that we’d been sold this dream, and we hated that we’d bought it … but there was no one to take it out on but each other.
DONNIE ELANNA: So there, by the side of some godawful country road, in the heart of Woodstock Nation, in the Summer of Love, the career of Sunlight Rider ended in the nastiest, bloodiest fistfight you ever saw.
MIKE COVELLO: We just … exploded. We had lost out, and been so stupid, and we were so frustrated and so angry, and we had no one to take it out on but each other. So that’s what we did.
DONNIE ELANNA: That stunad Stuey Varzuk, he kicked me so hard, I was no good to a woman for three months afterward.
J. ALAN DEVINE, attorney for Stuart Varzuk, bassist: On behalf of my client I must decline all comment related to this article.
MIKE COVELLO: I don’t even remember how I got home.
WALLY DEROSIERS: I haven’t touched a drumstick from that day to this. I went back to Connecticut and I was just so shattered. A week later, after the bruises faded, I got a job driving a refrigerator truck for a dairy in Bridgeport. I did that for a long time. A long, long, long time.
MIKE COVELLO: They found Rocky Malvelli — what was left of him — three or four years later, lying in an open field near Meriden. He’d been shot in the four points of a cross.
DONNIE ELANNA: A waste of three good bullets, if you ask me.
WALLY DEROSIERS: I can barely stand it. Every time a Woodstock anniversary comes around I don’t read the papers or listen to the radio. Makes me think of what could have been. What should have been. What we thought should have been.
MIKE COVELLO: I still can’t figure it out. Between June and August of 1969, I managed not to hear one single word about Woodstock. And ever since, it seems like I can’t go 48 hours without hearing about it someplace.
DONNIE ELANNA: Never have rock n’ roll dreams, kids. That’s the moral of the story. Never have rock n’ roll dreams. You’ll always wake up sweating and screaming, every time.
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I always wish I could leave these Mundane Moments fantasies right where they are, to muddle the Internet fact-pool.
But honesty compels me to say out front — just in case someone hasn’t already guessed — that the preceding 1,900 words are fiction. There was no Sunlight Rider, and the individuals quoted are entirely invented, with no specific resemblance intended to anyone living or dead.
As for the photo, my maternal grandpa took it in Stamford, Connecticut. It shows my late Uncle T.J. and a couple of his buddies, apparently in the middle of a game of horseshoes. I have a date of 1974 for it, though my guess is it’s probably at least a few years older than that.
That’s about it. Don’t take the brown acid.