My Heart Belongs To Joanie

joanirasproul

Here’s the Joan Baez I first came to love – 21 years old, raven-haired, fearless, with a soprano that could raise goose bumps and holy hell simultaneously.

It’s how she looked the first time I saw her perform – on the steps of San Francisco’s main post office in June 1962.

The Federal District Court on the third floor of the building was getting ready to try three crew members of a trimaran that had tried to sail directly into the Pacific waters where the Air Force was dropping different kinds of H-bombs to see how they worked. Radioactive strontium 90 and iodine 131 was blowing all across the four winds and the crew of the Everyman didn’t like it.

Everyman trimaranI didn’t like it either and neither did the hundred or so other demonstrators who were picketing up and down Seventh Street.

The San Francisco Television Archive has newsreel footage of the Everyman event, a collection of sound bites and B-roll, not a finished piece, but interesting.  It did take me back to the spirit of those times::  KRON-TV news report from 1962 in Sausalito on the Committee for Non-Violent Action’s construction of the trimaran sailboat ‘Everyman’

The guy standing behind Joan in the picture at top of the post is Ira Sandperl.  He clerked at Kepler’s Books in Palo Alto when he wasn’t teaching principles of non-violence for the Committee for Non-Violent Action and to anyone else who would listen – including a Palo Alto high school kid named Joan Baez. Their friendship stuck even after she became an overnight sensation.

Ira was acting as the unofficial spokesperson for the picketers, and I suspect he urged her to come down.  In any case, she arrived unannounced, no entourage, no sound system – just unpacked her guitar and started singing.

It’s hard to explain the effect Joan had on us in those days.  In 1962, she was in the second year of a skyrocketing career.  There had never been a folksinger who came close to her commercial success.  Yet she hadn’t sold out.  Her principles had stayed as pure as her music. And here she was, proving it again. In a world where the distinction between straight people and underground people was far more clearly defined than today  – she was OUR star.

And tonight she was on our steps without a police escort.

So anyway, the next day, after the trial got underway, the protesters decided to stake new ground within the post office itself. Arrests followed. People went limp, as would be seen over and over as the Sixties revealed itself.  I still have the clips.

1962 06 9 SF Ex Girl Picket's Gentle Roust

The guy in the checked jacket in the picture is Peter Weiss.  I wish I knew where he was today. One  long weekend, we hitched to Big Sur together, and slept on the beach below Nepenthe. Next to him is Bob Cummings, a poet and aspiring playwright. Both of them were in the circle I call The First Few Friends I Had

1962 06 09 SF Ex Photo-Picket

Dennis Crain, if you’re alive, show yourself! I need to hear your stories. 311 Judah Street was a kind of unofficial nerve center for the emerging San Francisco peace movement, and there’s a place inside me that never left. The dusty halls of that drafty flat still haunt my dreams.  It’s all in the book.

The First Few Friends I Had

First Few Friends Cover005

The Pondering Pig is relieved to announce his long-sought collection of stories about being young in San Francisco during the maelstrom of the early 1960s – is finally done, published and available on Amazon.  Here’s the link:

The First Few Friends I Had

and here’s what I said about it:

Someone asked me who the first hippies were, those unknowns who kicked off the psychedelic era of the 1960s. Were they born-too-late beatniks who arrived at the party after everybody had gone home? Or were they something else? Something new?
I actually knew some of those first freaks. In fact, they were the first few friends I had.
This trip starts in Nineteenth Avenue Park, San Mateo, California, winter of 1958, muddy raw subdivision streets, brine shrimped salt flats stretching to the Bayshore Freeway and beyond to sorrowful tract houses of Norfolk Street. The ground I sprung from.
But we won’t tarry. We’ll hit the road through the vast Sonoran Desert on solitary two-lane highways spring of 1961 to adventures in Mexico, then on to steaming East Village summer to swirling fog over North Beach, broken hearted spring of 1962.
Along the way, we’ll stop at the corner of Seventh and Judah Street in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset to watch a girl named Solveig rush out our door with ‘Ban the Bomb’ placards banging against her shoulder. We’ll scene shift till midnight to watch Peter Weissinger swing over the stair rail into teens crashing our big peacenik party and whomping on them in peacenik joy. We’ll contemplate a ghostly Carmen O’Shaughnessy stride through the archway in badass logger boots, tawny lionhair in long braids, brassy confident smile and my handmade Mexican chaleco.
Snow is falling over Long Island, the first winter rains are pouring into the sewers of Lily Alley, San Francisco. Carmen has jumped off the bus in Barstow, hitched home across the desert and there is not a damn thing I can do about it.
Summer 1964 in the Langley Porter Psychiatric Day Care Center for Mind-Blown Proto-Hippies and Hysterical Teenagers, the passengers are unraveling hidden meanings within Sally Go Round the Roses by the Jaynettes. They hear the Bomb, the war, the police dogs attacking demonstrators, fire hoses of death, J Edgar Hoover vs the Commies, peyote, pot, fear, angst, and – hey everybody, it’s Mashed Potatoes Time.
Look, the sky has gone blue, the golden city beckons. It’s spring again. Let’s stroll down to the North Beach Arts Festival to find my friends. Come on, they want to meet you. The First Few Friends I Had.

It’s been getting great reviews so far – so I hope you have a chance to check it out soon.  PP

The Ringo Summer

 

1980 Golden Gate and Scott In the summer of 1964 I was leading a double life in a cavernous Victorian flat at the corner of Golden Gate and Octavia in the antediluvian City by the San Francisco Bay. 

By day I appeared to be an earnest, bespectacled college student with longish hair and a beard, trying to catch up at San Francisco State’s summer session.  By night I was a screaming Beatlemaniac, free dancing to “Can’t Buy Me Love” with the unbuyable Linda Lovely, learning Beatles harmony parts for pothead jollity, rolling more joints and swallowing more grim Red Mountain burgundy as the moon peered down at her dancing and sleeping children of the Fillmore District.

The mutation happened quickly.  When Linda and I moved into that flat in late spring, we ascended the long stairs for the first time to the sound of Janos Starker’s take on Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.  The mood was serenely floating icebergs in the northern sea.  marienbad Cool was all.  At parties, guys danced little hip barely perceivable movements with slight toebend and careful handtouch and cool smiling into some beauty’s eyes with smooth seduction. 

Don Brasher (or was it Brazier?) sat in his room reading Rainer Maria Rilke by candlelight, a glass of Spanish sherry by his side, his pipe of bohemian sunload ready to carry him to deeper intunement with the German meister, while his other German meister, Johan Sebastian,  was ascending to old heights of calm untouched forever chills.

Down on the corner under the streetlight young spade guys were singing The Temps in four part harmony and drinking from a paper bag and laughing at something we didn’t know.

Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, oh yeah, that was long ago and far away in another world.  I listened to it in the car because I’d listened to it the car since I was fourteen and there was nothing else on except Sunday mornings when the black Oakland churches gave out Hammond organ zeal.  Or the Spanish language station where I tried to understand what the mariachi guys were singing. So I knew about Love Me Do and I Want To Hold Your Hand but so what?

I saw The Beatles on the 6:00 news one night at my parents’ house in San Mateo and thought they looked pretty cool with their long hair and wise mouths, but so what?

We found out What in late August.  My photographer friend Bill Laird, an ultimate Bohemian with sad transparent Scottish face, green corduroy sports coat frayed at pocket and long straggly Chinese black beard told me he and his old lady had seen A Hard Day’s Night and they had stayed to see it again and I had to see it too.

The Beatles were not what I thought they were.

So, incredulous but not wanting to miss anything, Linda and I got stoned and braved the SRO crowds of teenagers at a Saturday matinee at the Metro Theater on Union Street.  It was true about the non-stop screaming that made it impossible to hear the songs, but…but…I had to agree…these guys were so cool!

a-hard-days-night By the moment, early on, when they make their first escape on the train, hide out in a mail car, and John whips out his harmonica and cuts into Love Me Do and Ringo is playing on a little trap set that somehow materialized among the mail bags and London birds wearing John Lennon caps are popping into gleeful existence laughing and joyful, my heart and mind were ready to be won over.  Their pothead humor was unmistakable.  We knew they HAD to be heads like us.  We shared their secret from the get go.

And A Hard Day’s Night was in black and white, too.  So cool, like the hippest movies always had been and ever would be.

The next day I went down to Woolworth’s on Market Street, and bought the soundtrack LP.  Hippies were trekking down there from all over the Western Addition and the Mission.  And  that is how the old bohemian world came to its end, in a matter of weeks, in San Francisco, how John Coltrane was moved to the middle of the record stack and The Beatles, then The Rolling Stones, then The Kinks took their place at the lead and a new era began, the era of the dance concerts and the rise of the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and The Holding Company and The Grateful Dead – the great acid rock San Francisco bands.  Pop culture was interesting for a moment at last.

Here is a clip from the San Francisco Chronicle of that momentous summer so long ago, a record of Ringo’s impromptu visit to the San Francisco Airport on June 13, 1964, when I couldn’t have cared less…

Ringo Stops By—Near Riot
By Larry Fields

1964 06 13 Ringo Exactly two hours after San Francisco was jarred by a mild earthquake yesterday it got an after-shock. A really big one.

Shaggy Ringo Starr, en route to join the other Beatles in Australia, landed at San Francisco international Airport at 7:42 P. M. to change planes.

He was greeted by 800 shrieking, singing, swooning, crying teenage fans. One 16-year-old girl was so thrilled at the sight of her idol that she fainted.

Ringo’s Pan American World Airways flight was three hours late. But the delay only heightened the enthusiasm of his adoring admirers.

They spent the time listening to radio reports of his expected arrival time, comparing notes on how much they loved him, and singing:

"We love you, Ringo, yes we do.

"We love you, Ringo, we’ll be true."

1964 06 13 Ringo Page 2 Forty San Mateo County deputy sheriffs and airport security officers were on hand to try to control the yelling teenagers, but they weren’t certain they could handle the hazardous assignment.

Plans were made to sneak the drummer — who was traveling under the name R.. Starkey–into a private room and keep him away from his fans.

The teenagers, who threatened a reporter who said he wasn’t convinced that Ringo was something of a deity, said they would quote tear up unquote the airport if couldn’t see their darling.

And when their darling’s plane finally landed, a tremendous shout went up and police lines strained to keep the hysterical fans from pouring onto the runway.

WARY

Ringo’s blue eyes squinted apprehensively as he was rushed into a private conference room to meet the press.

"I loved them," he said of the screaming fans, "as long as the police don’t let them catch me."

Ringo, very short and thin, speaks much as he sings. And newsmen had difficulty understanding him.

He wore a tight black suit, a striped lavender shirt, shiny black boots, four gold rings, a gold bracelet, a gold watch and gold-and-ebony cufflinks.

TONSILLITIS

He said he thought he had recovered from the recent attack of tonsillitis which prevented him from starting the Australian tour with the rest of the group.

Only once did he lose his composure. A reporter asked him a question and called him "John."

"Who is this guy?" Ringo asked, quote doesn’t he know my name isn’t John?"

Ringo said he was looking forward to playing the Cow Palace in August and said: "I hope they won’t get let any cows in."

GIFTS

He was introduced to the presidents of two of his local fan clubs, who presented him gifts. Then he was lugged into the crowded lobby where he waved at his fans.

They waved back. They screamed. They cried.

One girl touched him as he passed, then wept as she stared at her palm and said: "My hand is numb. I can’t feel my hand."

Other girls surrounded her and kissed the hand that touched the Ringo.

Then he was whisked to his plane but the girls continued crying and shouting.

"I’m crying because he’s a darling." Sniffed Jeanette Ford, 14, of San Mateo. "He is more than I expected. I didn’t used to like him. But he’s my favorite now."

Beatup Victorian Fillmore District flat copyright 1980 Dizzy Atmosphere. Existential alienation from 1961 film Last Year At Marianbad

 

 

 

Luminaries of the Haight-Ashbury: Good-bye To All That

Big Brother guitarist James Gurley’s demise in mid-December got me thinking about the Haight-Ashbury again, that world that so dominated my early life and still follows me today like a puppy that refuses to become a dog.  What gets me, when I let my mind roll back, is not the music, not the LSD, not the teenyboppers dancing topless in the Panhandle, no – it’s my horrible optimism, the shiny beckoning utopian vision grinning like The Joker.  I believed a new age was coming where we would live in love, in harmony, in peace, in the country.  No one would have to work unless they wanted to, and there’d be apples cheery red in every orchard.

I wasn’t the only fool on the hill.  Remember the Beatles?

All you need is love.  Love is all you need.

In the beginning I misunderstood, but now I’ve got it – the Word is good.  Say the Word and you’ll be free.

You think they wrote that with cynical commercialism?  They didn’t.  They picked it up out of the zeitgeist, just like I did.

Blind Jerry

Here’s a page from my address book of those days.  See the guy on the bottom left under the green ink smear?  Jerry Sealund.

Jerry was a go getter.  A high energy guy.  Had a vision for the future and got the bread together to open the first health food store in the Haight-Ashbury.  I forget the store’s name because we all called called it Blind Jerry’s.

Yeah, Jerry and his wife Ethel were born both blind.  That’s how I got to know Jerry in 1963.  San Francisco State hired readers for their blind students and I got the gig for Jerry.  I used to go over to their house off Market Street, read Albert Camus out loud for a few chapters, then Jerry and I would drive around and get stoned.  Jerry didn’t want Ethel to know about his pot smoking activities.  It was still the early days.

Jerry was an optimist, you know?  It didn’t occur to him that being the blind proprietor of a retail establishment might present problems of a shoplifting nature.  We original hippie were all friends, we had high ideals, no one would rip off a blind guy, right?  Did anybody notice the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem?  I didn’t.

How could we be so naive?  We weren’t in a cult, we had no charismatic leader.  Tim Leary was good for a laugh, that’s all.  If there were enemies, they came from the straight world — the fuzz, LBJ, television.  Acid had opened the frontiers of our consciousness and let in the white light that would guide us to bliss and the knowledge of how to truly love each other.

But Blind Jerry’s health food store got nibbled and chewed and shoplifted into oblivion in three years.  In his history of the Haight-Ashbury, Charles Perry says Jerry was robbed twelve times in eleven months.

Are we humans inherently good until civilization corrupts us, like the Romantics thought?  Or are we inherently evil, as Christianity teaches?

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s what it comes down to, and I’m voting with the Christians.  We see our best chance and take it.  Raping the weak, robbing blind guys, smacking little kids around, punching and bleeding and stealing from people who can’t fight back, that’s the human way, that’s our potential and I wish it wasn’t.  It makes my stomach hurt.

We’re smart, but not smart enough.  We love but we don’t love enough. We hate terrorists and child molesters and Republicans and Obama and Sarah Palin and climate deniers and global warming kooks and we never notice they are just us in another form, with another history.

If you’re a cynic, congratulations.  I wish my skin was a little thicker.

*    *    *    *    *

My archivist assistant, The Pondering Chicken, asked me to put in a little note about the other names in the address book scan.  For the record, Jim Smirchich was a photographer in those days.  Later he moved to Oregon where he learned to make the most beautiful handmade beads you ever saw.  http://www.smircich.com/index.html

Melinda Scotten, Melinda Scotten.  Hmm, did I meet her at a party?  Must have been a short friendship.

Stephany Sunshine of Cosmos City blew in and out of my life like the original flower child.  I wrote a song about her that began

“Pretty little, pretty little Stephany,
Now your head’s been opened and it’s my oh my,
The thought’s you’re thinkin’ seem mighty strange to me…”

She deserves a post of her own.

Skip Shimmin eventually became a recording engineer and worked for Fantasy records, I think.  Maybe Skip is out there somewhere and can tell us.

My New Year’s resolution was if I can’t say anything nice, then I won’t say anything at all.  But don’t worry, I’ll be back one of these days, more fun than a barrel of monkeys!

The House On Divisadero Street (Part 6 of 6)

Later on, the media distilled my generation of San Francisco-bred, disaffiliated young people into a mess of love beads, LSD and free sex in Golden Gate Park.  It wasn’t like that, not at all.  This installment concludes the story of a student co-op in San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the years 1962-64, told in the words of three survivors, Gerald Keil, Loren Means, and Nathan Zakheim.

To begin at Part 1, click here.

 

Nathan Zakheim

LOREN MEANS: Nathan Zakheim’s father, Bernard Baruch Zakheim, was a painter, muralist, and sculptor who had been a peer of Marc Chagall in Germany and a collaborator with Diego Rivera in the US and Mexico, working on murals at Coit Tower and UC Medical Center. Nathan’s mother, Phyllis, was the last of the line of a family that had come to America shortly after the Mayflower and had owned a large portion of downtown Santa Barbara and Montecito. According to Nathan, they introduced oranges and bananas to southern California. She and Bernard had met when she was researching his UC Med Center mural, which had been wallpapered over by on the order of a professor who considered the murals a distraction to his students.

Nathan stomped around with a full beard and a sheepskin vest, with a guitar strapped to his back. I heard Nathan say to my girlfriend Kit, “Aren’t you even partly Jewish? How do you stand it?” He worked in a kosher delicatessen in the Fillmore District, and at one point he offered me some wizened lamb chop from his backpack. I ate what I could of it, but when I tried to throw away the bone, he snatched it from me and ate some more of it. “Mr. Means,” he said, “you eat like a millionaire.”

GERALD KEIL: Nathan became the backbone of our domestic community. 1964 Chinatown ducksHe knew the best places to shop cheaply, and brought home quantities of chicken backs and bacon ends which cost us practically nothing.  Chicken backs could be reduced to gelatin for soups and sauces. Bacon ends were considered industrial waste, but were far more substantial than those pricey strips of bacon which were mostly fat – a befitting token of the society from whose irrational consuming habits we profited.

NATHAN ZAKHEIM: From my father, I learned how to find food with no commercial value but huge flavor value: chicken backs to make soup, and fish heads to make chowder. The fish heads were full of gelatin, and were actually tastier and more nutritious than the sought after fillets of the fish.

At the time, I was driving a delivery truck all over the city, so I had prime opportunity to find bargains. I would spend a few minutes each in about ten shops per day. Each shop had a super special to lead in shoppers, so I would only buy that bargain and nothing else.1958 Farmers' Market Alemany Boulevard Or I would take my 1945 military issue Harley Davidson down to the Farmer’s Market on Alemany Blvd, and load up duffel bags with produce, bargaining fanatically with the farmers, and getting super low prices. Then I would load as much as I could on the back of the ‘cycle, and put a huge duffel bag over the handle bars, where it protruded as I rode home on the Skyway at 60 mph or more, in a manner I can only describe as phallic.

Wolff's kasha GERALD: But Nathan’s greatest revelation was kasha – whole-grained buckwheat. Nathan, who, despite the bacon ends, was a self-professed Ashkenazi, explained that the Polish army marched on kasha, which contained more protein than any other cereal; and since meat was a rare commodity for us, we ate kasha with eggs and bacon ends mornings, and in the evening, kasha with vegetables, especially onions, and the occasional meat scraps. Takes getting used to, but I came to like it. I still make a kasha dish every once in a while, and each time I do I picture Nathan, with his dark brown curly locks and ample full beard, looking as if he had just arrived fresh from the shtetl.

NATHAN: I wanted to experiment with a notion that we could live communally, sharing all food and communally purchased items. We created the idea of purchasing separately, cooking communally, and then dividing the receipts later and paying up until everyone had paid the same amount. My father was an avowed Marxist, and idealized the idea of "From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need." I had a burning desire for this "communism experiment" to actually occur among a likely group of SF State students who had much to gain and little to lose by such an experiment.

GERALD: All in all, we lived cheaply. We pooled expenses, and receipts for everything landed in a cardboard box. I distinctly remember, at the end of one six-week period, we opened the box, checked the balance, and discovered that we had only paid out some $35.00 in all.

NATHAN: My mother, who was a genius at frugality, was horrified that we were living on twelve dollars per month. She cried out with motherly outrage, "You should be spending twelve dollars per WEEK!” My mother knew how to stretch dollars in ways that truly boggled the mind. She could not imagine that I, in San Francisco, was able to find ultra-bargains and wholesale items that, when bought in bulk, were practically non-existent in cost per person.

Rodney Albin Rodney Albin

GERALD: The final member of our community was Rodney Albin. He must have joined us around June 1963, after the close of the Spring semester. At that time I had a job downtown, and when I returned one evening, there was Rodney, fully installed. His room was full to overflowing. The most conspicuous item was a huge, self-made harpsichord which straddled the bed so only its upper half was free. This was a space-saving measure, since Rodney’s room, like the others in the corridor, would have otherwise been too small to accommodate both bed and harpsichord. At the foot of this bed-harpsichord arrangement was a chest of drawers, and strewed around the room were string instruments of all sorts, and piles of books. Rodney was not the orderly sort.

It was a unique scene; this oversized harpsichord with a geared tuning peg on each string, and Rodney, sitting upright in bed, legs stretched out beneath the harpsichord, apparently exhausted from the effort of moving all his stuff, quietly frailing a banjo. He was even thinner than I was, and pale as a Norwegian in mid-winter. He looked to be in his early twenties, yet his hair was already thinning, accentuating a high round forehead which contrasted with his meager, somewhat sunken cheeks. His mustache was not immediately evident in the pallid light, even though he wore it untrimmed, since his hair was almost skin-colored. But what most caught my attention was his gaze: warm, kind, good-natured, submerged in music, at perfect ease despite all these new faces around him.

It wasn’t long – a few days at most – before Nathan took the initiative and brought a degree of order into Rodney’s domain. Using planks and bricks from somewhere, Nathan fashioned bookshelves which stretched from just inside the door down to the end of the corridor wall, continuing at right angles along the adjoining wall almost to the corner of Rodney’s bed. Nathan took great pride in the fact that the bookshelves were of cantilever construction, the plank ends hanging free in the air. From now on, Rodney had a modicum of order and a maximum of cantilever.

In the course of time Rodney taught me fingerpicking – both bluegrass and frailing. I had my father’s plectrum banjo with me, but with its four strings it wasn’t suited for fingerpicking. Rather than permanently altering Dad’s instrument, I fashioned a wooden add-on held in place by the combined force of the tightened G string and a specially fashioned clip.. Rodney contributed by installing a banjo tuning peg. The contraption worked like a charm; and, through building it, we discovered a mutual and lasting affinity.

Rodney and I had complementary talents: he could pick anything which had strings, and I could blow just about anything which had holes in it. In time I picked up enough banjo technique to make an agreeable noise, but I never even remotely approached the proficiency of Rodney Kent Albin.

 Late 1967.  Rodney and Ponderpig on boat somewhere in space.

In the early summer of 1964, Big Dave, the owner of 857 Divisadero St., decided to remodel his property. He gave his tenants thirty days notice. Rodney Albin paid a visit to his uncle, Henry Arian, whose company had just purchased a Victorian mansion at the corner of Page and Broderick Streets. It had most recently been used as a boarding house for Irish immigrants. Arian needed time to arrange financing to pull it down and replace it with new Redevelopment units, and Rodney made him an offer, "Rent it to me, and I will sublet the rooms to San Francisco State students. You won’t have a thing to worry about." They settled on $600 a month rent. And thus was born the most famous hippie rooming house in the world, 1090 Page Street.

The End of 857 Divisadero

NATHAN: I was the last tenant in 857 Divisadero St. I had fallen ill with a very bad case of flu after everyone else moved out, and I remained in my room unable to move. The owner had already turned off the power, water and gas. Since I was unable to leave, I had to make a temporary light by pouring cooking oil into a bowl and draping pieces of sweatshirt over the edge as wicks to make an oil lamp. The only water in the building was in the toilet tank, so that was all I had to drink while judiciously resisting the temptation to flush the toilet. I remember a basically hallucinatory Rodney Albin looking in my door at my comatose body and asking me , "Are you going to be all right"? before closing the door and leaving for the last time. He did not realize that I was that sick, and I was too sick to be able to communicate it to him!

GERALD: I departed 857 Divisadero at the beginning of December, 1963 to study abroad. Upon my return from Europe at the end of August, 1964 I learned that everyone had moved to 1090 Page Street, and I followed, sharing the front room with Rodney until getting married in mid-1965.

We were a highly divergent configuration of individuals, each with his own particular interests, yet, as a group, harmonious. With the exception of the rifle incident with Edmund, I can’t remember a cross word being spoken. We were certainly Bohemians, but essentially that just means being poor, young and literate. We didn’t really fit the labels of the time – neither Beatnik nor Hippie. You might say we were post-Beatniks and pre-Hippies – image-neutral, sporting the mannerisms and wearing the uniforms of neither.

LOREN: We were a transitional group, between the conformity of the ’50s and a different kind of conformity in the ’60s, and we didn’t fit into either. I came to San Francisco for the Beat movement, but it had been replaced by Carol Doda and topless dancing. I lived in the Haight-Ashbury during the Hippie era, and one of my roommates was an organizer of the San Francisco State student strike. I was friends with the founders of the Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and with filmmakers who did light shows, but I wasn’t interested in any of that. Buck Moon once told me that I was in the midst of all the movements in San Francisco, but not a participant in any of them.

But in the late ’60s, a concept of “underground” expression emerged in San Francisco that I did identify with and participate in. The avant-garde art, science, and culture scene in San Francisco has grown to outshine even New York and London. When we started making avant-garde art in the ’60s and ’70s, there was no tradition for us to emulate. Now those of us who are still manifesting this expression are the tradition, and younger people joining us are participating in that expression. I recently played a concert where the age range was from 75 to early 20s, and we all celebrated the unique cultural environment that the San Francisco Bay Area has become.

PONDERPIG: As I walked around the City in those days. I met interesting guys like Loren and Gerry and Nathan and Rodney. I also met freaks and potheads, poets and folkies, Fidelistas and mystics, junkies, conscientious objectors, meth freaks, super-8 filmmakers, actors, painters and assorted crazies. But I never met one person who came to San Francisco to join the hippies. Man or woman, boy or girl, the people I met were pursuing their boho destiny on their own terms. As Gerald says, they were a ‘divergent configuration’ tied together by some unspoken fraternal force. Maybe we felt the turning and turning in the widening gyre, the blood-dimmed tide unloosed and the earth quaking already beneath us.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just preferred strolling along, a bit out of step with the straight world busy marching somewhere we didn’t want to go. It was our preference. We gave each other permission to be different in any damn way we pleased. And that, my friends, is the quality (along with psychedelic drugs) that led to the flowering of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1966.

NOTE: The next chapter in the ongoing story can be found here: Luminaries of the Haight #4: 1090 Page Street.  More on Rodney Albin may be found here: Luminaries of the Haight-Ashbury: Rodney Albin.

Vintage San Francisco photos: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.

The House On Divisadero Street (Part 5 of 6)

Continuing the story of a student co-op in San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the years 1962-64.

To begin at Part 1, click here.

Edmund The Mad Magician

LOREN: One evening when I was returning from visiting my new girlfriend Kit at Stanford, I noticed a pale fellow sitting on the bus with a portable TV set in his lap. When I got off, the guy also got off and followed me to the entrance to 857. I unlocked the door, got in, then tried to shut it behind me, but the guy wedged it open with his TV.

“What are you doing?” I demanded.

“I live here,” he told me.

“You don’t live here,” I said, “I’ve never seen you before.”

“I’m just moving in,” he insisted. “I can’t get my key right now.”

So I let him come up the stairs with me. It turned out he was a colleague of Willie’s named Edmund Robere. They had a mail-order business making chemical potions for magicians. But Edmund and Willie constantly shouted at each other, and Edmund didn’t seem to get along with anybody except me. I found him affable but creepy, and I kept my distance from him.

GERALD: Edmund Robere was a magician; but whereas magic was a lucrative hobby for Willie, for Edmund the Mad Magician it was his life and soul. Edmund was much older than the rest of us; he wasn’t a student, and to the best of my knowledge he had never been one. Edmund kept his own company, and not only because of the age gap. He maintained unusual waking hours.

Edmund was taller than everyone other than myself – and athletic in build. He had dark brown hair, a full, dark mustache and Zorro-like sideburns. He always dressed in black. We were never certain whether his appearance reflected his stage image, his self-image, or his genuine personality. Willie said that, before moving in with us, he had lived in a basement and slept in a coffin. I never witnessed Edmund turning into a bat, and it never occurred to me to confront him with a crucifix, but an ordinary guy was he not.

Edmund was a nocturnal creature. At least in the evening, when we were most likely to be together and making noise, he was up and about, but during the day, Edmund’s unconventional sleeping habits became a source of friction.

800px-Vw_bus One day Willie came back with his microbus loaded with carpets. His mother had bought new ones, and we intended to replace our threadbare carpets which had, by all appearance, been there since before the Great Earthquake and Fire.

Edmund, however, was disturbed by the racket. Since my room was right across the corridor from his, I was his first victim. He ripped my door open, poked a rifle in my face and proclaimed his intention to fire point blank at the next sound which emanated from my room. That was at least final proof that Edmund was not a vampire; otherwise, it would have been the end of him, since it was broad daylight at the time.

On the other hand, he could be amiable, even convivial. On numerous occasions he demonstrated to us his cunning as a magician. He was a master of sleight-of-hand, producing cigarettes, coins or playing cards out of nowhere. I have seen this sort of thing often enough as a stage or television performance, but Edmund was standing mere inches away from us, and the effect was none the less convincing

But his real forte was pyrotechnics, with which he would sometimes overwhelm us. On one occasion, Edmund suddenly pulled out what looked like a pistol and fired it at Willie, who happened to be standing at the opposite end of the corridor. A fireball speeded towards Willie’s solar plexus. But instead of hitting him and frying him alive, it disappeared – puff – mere inches short of its apparent target.

Pyrotechnics was also the cause Edmund’s sudden demise…

LOREN: One day in June, 1964, I was downtown and heard an explosion. I read in the paper the next day that one Robert Hammersley had blown himself up in his mother’s apartment in the Tenderloin. The accompanying picture revealed that this Robert Hammersley was in fact Edmund. He had been trying to fill an order for some magic supply, and had blown himself through the wall of his mother’s kitchen and into her sitting room.

GERALD: His mother, who was in the adjacent room, remained miraculously uninjured – fragments of kitchen utensils were embedded deep in the wooden frame of the sofa she had been sitting on – but Edmund himself took the full force and was killed instantly. Upon examination, according to Willie, they discovered the explosion had been so powerful that it shifted the entire building several inches on its foundation.

LOREN: Later Rodney Albin took me to meet Anton La Vey, before he started the Church of Satan. La Vey was trying to write a book about Edmund, and knew more about him than we did. La Vey told us that Edmund had been arrested for sleeping in a coffin in somebody’s basement. He showed us Edmund’s watch from the explosion, and there was still skin clinging to it. LaVey said he had a journal of Edmund’s that kept track of the times he’d drunk blood, and what kind of blood it was.

Eventually I persuaded my girlfriend Kit to leave Stanford, and matriculate to San Francisco State College. We moved together to an apartment on the corner of Clay and Baker streets, one room with a kitchen and bath down the hall. The bed was a Murphy bed that pulled down from the wall by a metal rod that clanged against the metal bed frame when we made love.

With Loren’s departure, there was once again a room for rent at 857 Divisadero, but it wasn’t empty long. Enter radical folksinger Nathan Zakheim, who had been sleeping on a couch in a kosher butcher shop on McAllister Street.

NEXT: NATHAN ZAKHEIM

The House On Divisadero Street (Part 4 of 6)

Continuing the story of a student co-op in San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the years 1962-64.

To begin at Part 1, click here.

Gerald Keil’s Story

Hayward 1950s My childhood was fashioned by two directly opposing forces. On one side was the oppressive conformity of the fifties in suburbia. McCarthy’s witch-hunts were major events in my hometown of Hayward, California, and their aftermath lived on into the sixties. Even as children we knew Commies were to be chased out of town, and anything foreign was likely to be communist-tainted. Every kid wanted a Davy Crockett coonskin cap and to be a man who stood on his own two feet, not waiting for government handouts like those loafers did.

The other force came from outside this closed world. My father’s entire family in the USA and in Denmark had remained close-knit over generations. Continuous contact had been interrupted only during the war years.

My immediate society taught me that Socialist was another word for Commie and all Communists wanted to bore us through with their bayonets, starting with the babies. At the same time, half my family lived in a country with a socialist government and not a single one of them had ever expressed a craving for a bayonet, let alone a desire to perforate anyone.

In school, our teachers would tell us how everyone in the rest of the world was envious of our good fortune. But in the letters from my Danish family I read accounts of pleasurable events, holidays in Italy, and family celebrations – no word of envy, no accusations that we were well out of it, safe in America, while they had to make the best of their dismal life in Denmark. Even in the early years after the war, no-one in Denmark ever complained of serious want or beseeched us for financial support.

Where other kids swallowed the "God’s Own Country" dogma whole, I longed to escape the stifling air of self-congratulation. I needed to escape the morass of suburbia and seek more open-minded company.

High-school graduation in 1960 was like freedom from chains. I could go to college, which meant getting out of Hayward, and live with people who had a positive attitude toward learning.

I spent my first two years at San Jose State. It was my parent’s choice. I lived in a boarding-house about eight blocks from campus, with a muscular landlady who watched over our virtues. But, after two years, I had had more than enough of this extended childhood. I moved to San Francisco, where I could finally live on my own. Technically, I was now a college drop-out.

One thing was clear: any further studies would have to be paid out of my own pocket.

Once I learned the tricks, I found I could live at a fraction of the cost of a ‘straight’ life style and save much of the money I earned packing luggage at the Greyhound depot. I re-matriculated for the Spring Semester 1963, this time at San Francisco State College, confident I could pull it off with no further financial support from home.

As the semester began, however, I was living again in Hayward, and commuting in a car pool. One day at school I overheard Loren Means mention there were vacancies where he was living and wondered if anyone might be interested. ‘Yeah, I am,’ I jumped in, as if Loren had been talking expressly to me. I didn’t know what it was or where it was, but, judging from Loren, I guessed the windows weren’t hung with lace curtains. I’d be free at last from suburbia.

 From now on our mutual home was a boarding house in the Fillmore District – one building down from the south-west corner of Divisadero and McAllister Street. The ground floor of the building, once a grocery store, was boarded up. A few unkempt old men lived on the second floor. Above them was our domain: four rooms on both sides of a full-length corridor. At the end of the corridor a door led to an unusable fire escape. Good thing we never had a fire.

The landlord lived on the second floor, but I rarely saw him. He was relatively young, though a generation older than we were, crew-cut, heavy-set, a guy you wouldn’t want to get into an argument with. Rumor – I think of his own making – had it that he was known and feared throughout the Fillmore and since we stood under his protection, we would not be harassed by militant residents with a grudge against whites.

My experience was that blacks had a grudge against whites who had a grudge against blacks. We were tolerated in the neighborhood because we were demonstrably not of that sort. I would go into coffee shops in the Fillmore at weird hours of the night, and at 2:00 every Saturday morning, after an evening playing bagpipe at the Edinburgh Castle, my main source of income at the time –, I would stroll home through the middle of the Fillmore, still wearing my kilt. I was never assaulted, and I was accosted only once – by a white, very insistent homosexual who thought my legs were just too sweet.

But Loren Means remembers the neighborhood differently.

Loren: The thing that was hard for us to understand was the hostility of our black neighbors. We held it obvious that we weren’t prejudiced, or we wouldn’t be there. The people on the street who shouted at us to get out of their neighborhood obviously didn’t see it that way. Once I was walking down McAllister Street with a group of guys, including Buck. We ran into a group of very young black kids. They started shouting at us, and suddenly one of them hit Buck in the face, just below his left eye. Just then a police car appeared on the street next to us, and escorted us to the nearest bus stop. We got on a bus, and Buck sat there bleeding. I said “Buck, remind me to take you with me wherever I go. You’re the perfect target, the only guy I know smaller than me.” He didn’t appreciate that.

One weekend Dave Johnson showed up at 857 with his girlfriend, Kit Brahtin. Kit was from Santa Barbara, and was attending Stanford on a National Merit Scholarship, having achieved the highest scores possible on her SAT tests. Dave passed out, and Kit and I spent the evening together. Shortly after that, Kit broke up with Dave and she and I started commuting on the Greyhound bus to see each other.

NEXT: EDMUND THE MAD MAGICIAN

To continue to Part 5, click here.