People of the Book 2: George The Beast

George Howell enhanced

Here’s what Leslie Sue Humphrey said about The First Few Friends I Had on Amazon:

“The era that Mr. Newton writes of, has piqued my interest for years. There has been much written about the Beats as well as the Hippies, in San Francisco and environs, but not of the transition between the two. I nearly swallowed the book whole, and have gone back to re-read it, in order to really taste as well as digest it.
“The experience of riding along with Christopher and his friends, as they began to explore their high school world in the in the late 50’s, with all of the emotional changes that teens naturally go through was delightful. The weaving of the love stories throughout the book, while causing some of the painful moments, had also the leavening effect on some of the very painful times that Christopher and friends lived through.
And I want more!”


Luminaries of the Haight-Ashbury: Rodney Albin

Part I: The Folk Years

I guess of all the friends I had back then, in the halcyon days of my hippie youth,  Rodney Albin is the guy I miss the most.  When he died of stomach cancer in 1984, still a young  man, I felt like I was losing my brother all over again.

He was a pal, you know? Guys like him are hard to come by.

Well, so tell us about him, Pig.

Like so many of my erstwhile folknik hippie commie friends of the early sixties, I met Rodney kind of like this…

Late one morning in, I suppose, the Fall of 1962, I exited San Francisco State’s HLL building, where the boring part of my initiation into high Western culture took place, and ambled across the lawn towards the  Commons to get coffee and see what was up.  Despite its medieval sounding name, four legged sheep were not pastured in the Commons, nor did peasants, other than us, trudge there every morning to work their land.  The Commons was a big cafeteria in the center of campus, and everything of consequence that happened to me in those years took place inside its doors at the second table on the left.  Or on the lawn directly in front.  That’s it in the center of the picture, as it looked in 1960.  Who could guess a square building like that would become a cauldron of sixties counterculture?

On this particular morning, I happened to notice a new folkie sitting cross-legged on the lawn, surrounded by the regulars and passing around a dulcimer he had just built.  He was a tall gangly kind of folknik, just transferred in from the College of San Mateo, a junior college on the Peninsula.  He was wearing bright red trousers, a stove-piped hat and tails, and he was playing The Battle of New Orleans on his fiddle.  No.  Wait a minute.  That’s got to be my imagination.  The top hat and tails didn’t come until later.  OK, he was dressed like a normal person.  It was his dulcimer that was extraordinary.

Interested in dulcimers myself, I forgot about the coffee (never easy to do)  and squeezed into the circle.  That dulcimer was pretty cool, all right.  Shaped like Jayne Mansfield with soft flowing curves and strummed with a sea gull feather, you could tune it to any interesting modal scale you might be in the mood for, brush its strings with that quill, and there you were,  mournful and lost in the holler, sounding like you’d been born in Viper, Kentucky instead of San Francisco.  I started in on an improvised, sea gull strummed Pretty Polly, and pretty soon I was hooked.  The Commons fled and there I was in some longago fog shrouded mountain glen, watching some no-goodnik do in Pretty Polly while the pretty little birdies mourned.  It sounded like magic, and Rodney had created the damn thing out of a piece of spruce.

I got to know Rodney after a while and discovered he was from the next holler over.  My holler was called San Mateo and his they called Belmont.  He and his younger brother Peter were still living with their parents in an upper middle class shack in the Belmont hills.  I also discovered that Rodney wasn’t the new guy – I was.  He was well-known in folk circles up and down the Peninsula and across the Bay in Berkeley.  He’d masterminded the folk music festival at the College of San Mateo where young Jerry Garcia made his debut to an unappreciative audience of frat rats.  Rodney and George ‘The Beast’ Howell had opened the Boar’s Head the preceding summer, a folk-oriented coffeehouse in the loft above the book store in San Carlos where George worked.  Garcia and the other Palo Alto folkniks regularly showed up there to jam into the weekend nights.

I started dropping in to see Rodney when I was down that way.  On my first visit, he showed me the six string balalaika he’d built out of orange crate wood.   It was his first sort of crude try at building an instrument.  He was way beyond now of course. He’d already finished a viol de gamba, and now he was building a harpsichord on his bedroom floor.  Its parts spread hither and thither across the  carpet; tools, a reel to reel tape recorder and an unmade bed filled the rest.  He used the tape machine to record performances at the Boar’s Head.  Apparently some of these tapes still exist and are passed from hand to hand in Deadhead circles.   They would include: Garcia, Ron McKernan, David Nelson, Rodneys’s brother Peter of course, and other less talented performers who went on to become teachers and bureaucrats and accountants – but still played pretty good.

Rodney opened a whole new world to me.  Before Rod, folk music meant Joan Baez manning the barricades while Pete Seeger fired his musket at the Pentagon.  It meant peace marches, sit-ins and and drinking cheap dago red at parties while somebody plunked out ‘Twelve Gates To the City, Hallelujah’ on a nylon string guitar.  But these friends of Rodney’s were…dedicated.  They played bluegrass and old-timey stuff, They listened to Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers on scratchy 78s.  Was Charlie from Greenwich Village or Boston?  I wasn’t sure.  They sang about chickens loose in the barnyard squawk squawk and subjects like that.  Who could figure?  But, hey – I liked Rodney so I listened and tried to understand.  I just didn’t see how “Boil That Cabbage Down” would save the world from nuclear destruction.

Peter Albin was already a more accomplished musician, although still in high school.  He could wail on Bile That Cabbage Down but he could also play Mississippi Delta slide guitar riffs, and,  what really impressed me — he knew some Chuck Berry stuff.  I know I was supposed to have outgrown this teenaged foolishness, but tell my ears that!

There was something about Rodney, his gentle spirit, his brilliant mind and his dry sense of humor, that drew me to him.  I liked hanging out with him, and so did most everyone else in our circle. Later I learned there were circles like that all up and down the Peninsula.

Rodney was kind of funny looking.  He had a classic beanpole shape, gawky you might say, you might even say gawky and sniffy.  He was born to play comedy roles, and he worked it.  The first time I saw him (as opposed to meeting him) was the preceding spring when he was still attending the College of San Mateo.  I knew some CSM kids in a school production of Twelfth Night, and I went see one of them, Dick Shapero,  play Malvolio.  Dick was an experienced actor and knew how to get laughs,  but when Rodney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek entered stage right, Dick had to give up.   Rodney didn’t say anything.  He just stood there in his Elizabethan get-up, awkward, gawky, rubbing his nose, looking around as if he couldn’t quite remember his lines. The audience slowly began to titter and he built the moment into a the play’s biggest laugh.  He worked that role successfully for the next twenty years.

(I KNOW this isn’t Twelfth night, ok?  I don’t have a photo of Twelfth Night and I need a photo here.  So here is the same company’s Pygmalion, produced a few months later)

A few days after Rodney passed his dulcimer around, I was sitting on the grass trying to impress some proto-hippie chicks by  playing “I’m a  whinin’ Boy, don’t deny my name” on my Mexican folk guitar.  I was using a two-fingered picking style I’d made up.  Like crab pincers, my thumb kept the rhythm while my index finger picked out the melody.  It was pretty primitive.  If I hadn’t been a soulful singer, the chicks would have walked.  As it was, they were listening all right, but they weren’t idolizing me like they should.  What could I do?

When it was Rodney’s turn to do a song, he launched into ‘Freight Train, Freight Train Going So Fast’, singing in a thin nasal voice like an elderly gent from Viper, Kentucky.  I thought his singing could use some help, but, man, he had that Elizabeth Cotton style finger-picking right down!  His thumb was rocking between the bass strings and he syncopated the melody just like the old girl herself!  Actually, I’d never heard of Elizabeth Cotton before, but whoever she was, I wanted to play like that too.  But three fingers!  How could anybody ever make so many fingers work together?  Maybe I should stick to my authentically primitive crabstyle.

But Rodney encouraged me.  He showed me the moves over and over till I started to get them.  I went back to my apartment and drove my wife mad singing the silly holy thing over and over with my thumb rocking and fingers trying to syncopate it right, “Please don’t tell them what train I’m on so they won’t know where I’ve gone.”

Linda was thinking, ‘When’s that train leaving?”

Come Christmas, Linda, in a moment of madness, gave me a mandolin.  She’d found it in a Third Street pawn shop and bought it for $20.  I was thrilled.  It’s just – how did you play one of these things?  I loved messing around with instruments and could sort of play a lot them, all by ear and without much skill.  I asked Rodney if he knew how to play one and it turned out he did.  He showed me how to hold a pick and how to play a simple tune called Liberty.  After I mastered that he taught me a more complicated minstrel song called “Colored Aristocracy.” After that, I didn’t need any more lessons.  I knew four chords and could pick two songs.  I was ready to roll!

I didn’t know it yet but I was about to take my place in the Albin Brothers’ amorphous shape-shifting band, The Liberty Hill Aristocrats.  One night, Rodney said they were going to play the Top of The Tangent in Palo Alto and they needed somebody on mandolin.  I was a mandolin player!  So next night, with some trepidation,  I got up on the little stage, playing with the likes of Jerry Garcia and Peter Albin and David Nelson – real masters of their instruments.  Rodney didn’t care if I only knew four chords.  He even let me sing one, I think it was Little Birdie.  – he liked to include people, and that included The Pondering Pig.  You had to love a guy like that.  I did.

That was Rodney, he got people going, he included them, even if it affected the professionalism of the music.   He had his priority list, and friends were higher up than professionalism.  Me too.


Photo credits: Rodney, CSM Play: Pig’s files – photographer unknown, SF State campus: SF Pub Lib

But Now We Are Sixty-Six

Oh boy, 1948, the year I turned six. First of all, for my birthday I got a pull-dachshund on a string whose legs moved as I pulled him along. And it got even better! We went to the Russian River for a week that summer and my brother showed me how to play Cruisin’ Down The River On A Sunday Afternoon on his uke. I got to go down the dusty road to the general store all by myself and I could buy any funny book I wanted. Except no horror or crime comics. But that was okay – I could read those on the comic book stand until the owner got wise.

Now I’m sixty-six, and what do I get? I get to chop ice all day. Shovel snow. Oh well, I shouldn’t complain. For birthday dinner my German mother-in-law made her famous beef roladen, red cabbage, mashed potatoes and gravy, and for dessert my favorite home-made creme caramel as only my mother-in-law knows how to make it. Smooth, creamy and wonderful with that rich burnt sugar syrup slooshing down its sides to make a little lake in the bottom of the bowl. And we polished off a bottle of top-notch Cabernet, grown in my current home state of Washington. Then we watched a French movie called A Very Long Engagement. It stars Audrey Tautou, the actress who played Amelie.

You probably won’t like it. It’s relentlessly melancholy, like me. About a young woman who, also like me, knows to the depths of her being that love is forever. She refuses in the face of all evidence to believe her lover was killed in the Great War. For the Pig Of The Grey Skies And Rain, her performance and her character provides the penultimate revelation of a true heart. In fact, I’ve got to go watch it again right now.

(Two hours later) Where was I? Oh yes, I was about to start complaining.

You know me, the Complaining Pig. I’ve made a career out of never being satisfied. So here’s what I’d really like for my birthday. I’d like to know what happened to all the loved friends and befriended lovers of my youth. All the kiddos who are wrapped in gold in my heart and whom I can never and will never forget. Here, for the third year, is my birthday roll call, with updates since last year…

Was Anyone Left Alive?

Bess Farr, AKA Lisa Farr, AKA Lisa McFadden. Dear friend and troublemaker, we were friends throughout the Sixties. The last time I saw her, she dosed me with MDA at a party. I wasn’t mad at her – she just made made me realize how fed up I was with the life I was leading. But I’ve always felt like I deserted her when she was in trouble. And I wish I hadn’t. You okay, Bess? 2008 update: Eva Wilson told me Bess died of ovarian cancer about 1992. I never got to see her again. I always thought one day we would have lunch together and she’d tell me her life had turned out okay. Bye, Bess. I wrote about you in It’s Too Late, She’s Gone…

Bob Gill – brother beatnik, peyote brother and card carrying YPSL. In my mind’s eye, he’s up on the barricades somewhere waving his ancient rifle defiantly and the Nationalists are closing in.

Bob Kaffke – diabetic Communist who rode horseback through Mexico. News: Bob is gone. Died of pneumonia in 1983 on a houseboat in the San Francisco Bay. Leo Sadorf found this link put up by his son. 2008 Update: I wrote about Bob in Kaffke of the Comsymps.

Bob Kuehn – Another of the SF State peace warriors. Ban the Bomb!

Danny Rifkin – So funny and creative. The first on our scene besides me to notice the Beatles were Something New. And he laughed at my poetry (that was good, not bad). News: Danny’s still out there hitting it. I found this article about him in the San Francisco Chronicle.

David Miller – Carpenter of Walrus and Carpenter. My singing partner and best friend until I betrayed him. Last time I talked to him he called to say good-bye. He was moving to Tennessee. Funny how I still miss him after all these years.

Don Auclaire – leader of our pack, the Dirty Peaceniks, 311 Judah Street, San Francisco. 2008 Update: Solveig told me she visited him in the Mexico City jail in 1963. George Howell told me he was living in the Haight-Ashbury with Teresa Sweeney in the spring of 1964. After that he fades from view like dust on cracking film emulsion.

Donna Conroy – Tom Conroy’s beautiful beat street wife from the Delaware horse country. Tom spent half his time fighting off the pimps who wanted to sign her up. Last time I saw here she was great with child.

Ed Ginsberg – comic peyote brother, photographer and a great heart. News: Someone told me last year he is living in Budapest.

Eva Bessie – Bess’ best friend, daughter of Hollywood Ten screenwriter Alvah Bessie. She was immortalized on two Fillmore posters done by her husband Wes. Still living in the Ozarks somewhere last I heard. 2008 Update: Eva is a psychologist in Missouri. Happily married these long years and now with grandchildren on her knee. We’ve talked and corresponded several times. God bless that little piglet who made a success of her life.

George “The Beast” Howell. A legend in his own time. A friend ran into him ten or fifteen years ago in the rugged mountains of Northern California up by the Oregon border. He was on a buying trip looking for high quality virgin wool. Something about Persian rugs. He’d picked it up living in Asia. 2008 Update: Peter Albin gave me his phone number. With awe and trepidation I called George just before Christmas. To hear again after so long that voice of legend, my North Beach comrade George the Beast, King of the Baby Beatniks…it was like watching ice melt around a mammoth frozen aeons ago with daisies still hanging from his mouth and waiting for him to trumpet once more. George lives with his sister near Clear Lake, California. He’s got emphysema and can’t get out much. Still appraises rare and valuable carpets. But he is still here, still on the ground, not in it. God bless you forever, brother. I wrote about George in Famous People I Never Knew #1: Neal Cassady.

Joe Novakovich – Fingerless Joe himself. He had warped fingers due to a birth defect, yet became a masterful autoharp player and stalwart of the San Francisco folk scene. 2008 Update: I’ve heard sad stories about Joe I will not relate until I know if they’re true.

Johnny Chance – Saintly drummer for The Final Solution and first guy on our scene to notice the Beach Boys were cool. Funnier and smarter than anyone, yet he dressed like a Catholic schoolboy. He joined the Moonies and I never saw him no more. I miss his goofy smile and cracked sense of humor and Petaluma intelligence.

Laurie Sarlat – with the Long Island accent, thick black hair and blue-green eyes, she was poet Allen Cohen’s consort and Wendy to this lost boy. She left town with a guy I didn’t know and I never saw her again. Allen told me years later she’d joined a Christian cult. 2008 Update: She’s living in Arizona. I don’t know where.

Leslie Hipshmann AKA Leslie Van Gelder. Most beautiful and sweetest of the teenaged hangers-on at 311 Judah Street (funny, I was a teenager myself!). She split for New York and I never saw her again. Leslie, I still have the letters you wrote me from the East Village.

Margarita Bates AKA The Bitch. Unforgettable. News: An anonymous tipster wrote to tell me she is alive and where she is living. Thank you. 2008 Update: I wrote about Margarita in Chet Helms, Margarita And Me

Melanie Kinkead AKA Lanie da Kink – as dear a girl as I ever knew. I wrote about her in Famous People I Never Knew #2: Janis Joplin. I am back in touch with Mel thanks to the blog and she is still just as funny as ever, and still the best. 2008 Update: I visited Mel in Sacramento last summer and it was like we had been apart for five minutes. What a pal!

Michael Rachoff – Page Street friend of years but we lost touch in my wanderings. 2008 Update: I’ve talked to Michael on the phone several times and hope to see him in a few weeks. He still lives in San Francisco.

Peter Kraemer – Virgina City filmmaker and leader of the Sopwith Camel – the first San Francisco band to hit the charts. 2008 Update: I recently heard Peter is living in Mexico and planning another reunion of the Sopwith Camel.

Peter Walters – my boyhood best friend who lived at 47th and Balboa. Peter didn’t care if I was sick in bed much of my childhood. He’d always come by and play games and make puzzles and draw battleships with me in bed and him sitting in a chair beside me. What a great kid!

Peter Weiss –tough kid from the Bronx who danced with Ann Halprin’s Dancer’s Workshop. Last time I saw Peter he and his girlfriend were heading for Japan.

Riley Turner – holy tennies street kid from Lowell High School. I wrote about him in Song For Relay Tornfoot.

Solveig Otvos, AKA Solveig Rimkeit, AKA Ruth Weissinger – the beautiful Latvian. Where are you, Solveig? I still hear you laugh in my dreams. 2008 Update: I’ve talked to Solveig, now known as Rochanah at her home in Chico, California. She claims she remembers nothing but she remembers everything. Her laughter still brings joy to ice.

Tom Conroy – the North Beach street kid cartoonist who got me busted in Oakland. Tom dealt in Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon comic strips and could spot newspaper insulation in every blowndown ghetto redevelopment Victorian we broke and entered. 2008 Update: George Howell told me Tom lives in New Mexico and has a successful business running a stock photo archive.

I know where too many of my early friends are today though – in the ground.
Here’s to you, Rodney Albin and Chet Helms and Allen Cohen and Wendy Norins and Tom Hobson and Bess Farr and all the rest of you – friends forever.

I have a lifetime of stories to tell just about these guys. There they are through my window: young and sunburnt and storm-tossed – the best of the best, the San Francisco kiddos of the pre-invasion Sixties – my generation.