1090 Page: The House Where the Haight Began

Sometime in the spring or summer of 1964, Rodney Albin’s uncle acquired a twenty-two room Victorian boarding house on the corner of Page and Broderick Streets in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The place had seen better days. Built in the 1880s by the owner of a high-toned downtown haberdashery, it had all the modern 1888 conveniences – speaking tubes, a doorbell that rang on each floor, and gas lighting sconces on the walls for when the electricity went out. Its pearl, though, was in the basement: a full-sized ballroom with a stage in one alcove. The entire room was lined with glowing virgin redwood panels.

But in the 1940s, 1090 Page Street was downscaled from a mansion to a boarding house.  Life Magazine mentioned it in a 1961 story titled “The Irish in America.” It featured a full-page photo of thirty ‘typical Irish’ working stiffs and Mrs. Minton, their landlady, all leaning out the windows of 1090 Page waving madly.

For Rodney’s uncle, the building was strictly a business investment.  He was planning to tear it down and replace it with federally funded senior housing.   But the deal was bogged down in Washington somewhere, so Rodney approached him – he knew a way his uncle could make some money on the place while he waited to finalize the deal.  Why not rent rooms to San Francisco State students? Why, it happened that Rodney himself was a State student.  With his connections he could easily fill the place with the most respectable type of student, earnest and studious.   Rodney guaranteed him $600 a month, and was soon installed as landlord of what would become possibly the most renowned proto-hippie/scruffy student  pad in San Francisco’s short history.  By fall, the place was jumping.  Since rooms began at $15 a month, it was affordable,  to say the least.

Experimental filmmaker Loren Means lived there during those first few months.  “The psychedelic thing and rock and roll hadn’t really happened yet.  1090 was more a community of artists and students.  We supported each other and took an interest in what each other were doing. I was in the Film Department at State and also was about to teach a class on Non-Objective Literature at the students’ new Experimental College. I planned to assign Finnegan’s Wake.  I was talking to Rodney about it and he said the Wake was a failure. That brought me up short. I’ve never heard anyone else say that about Joyce.”

That was part of the fun of hanging out with Rodney: He would spout that stuff out continually.

Loren told me about another time on campus.  “There was some kind of protest going on against the new Student Union because the administration had rejected the architect the students wanted. The protesters started selling hamburgers in competition with the cafeteria.  They claimed it was overcharging. Rodney bought hamburgers from both sides and weighed them, and said that the cafeteria hamburgers were a better deal because they weighed a few grams more than the protesters’ hamburgers.”

Dammed iconoclasts, anyway.

Sixties rocker Peter Kraemer told me about the night at 1090 when a critical moment in modern cultural history took place: “Jim Oshita, who used to drive around SF State in a golf cart full of TV sets, supposedly dropped one of those from the top of the great central staircase (he lived up there somewhere); must have been at least five floors down to the ballroom level. This might have been the seminal TV drop; the next one I heard about was in ’66 when The Blues Magoos threw one out an upper window of the Albert Hotel in NY.”

I wonder where Rodney was.  He may have been playing his banjo for musical accompaniment.  More likely, he wasn’t there.  As the landlord, he was supposed to look askance at these irregular and potentially destructive activities.

It’s funny how freaks hated television in those days except, maybe, the Smothers Brothers.   Television was the insidious voice of the enemy whispering to America what to buy next.  Good riddance!

Rodney, to keep the house full, began renting to people from the local hipster community as well as students.  For instance, there was George Shea.

George was an actor.  One afternoon, he taped up a poster in the kitchen advertising “Social Realism Tonight — in The Ballroom!”  He was working up a one man production of Clifford Odet’s 1930s play Waiting For Lefty. The play, about a taxi drivers’ strike,  required actors in the audience to shout out questions and rude remarks to the actors onstage.   Since this was a one man show, George had to portray all the characters on stage, then quick hop off the alcove into the ten or fifteen people who’d come down to see the fun, scream an obscenity, then rush back onstage to answer himself.  It was a memorable performance, but George’s true fame came a little later.

One morning, George and his girl friend Marilyn woke up bored.  So they decided to rob a bank.  What the world needed now, clearly, was an Art robbery, a Dada robbery, a Happening robbery.  They planned it over a nice cup of Folger’s Instant, then strolled down Divisadero Street to the local Bank of America branch.   They had the foresight to scrawl a note that read “Put the money in a bag.” They walked into the bank, waited in line, and when they got to the window, shoved the note through.  Of course, they didn’t think they’d actually need a bag.  They had other, more interesting plans.

Unfortunately though, we’ll never know what those plans were.  The branch had endured a spate of robberies lately, and this morning the teller was a cop.  He took one look at the note and pulled his gun.

“Wait!  You don’t understand!  This isn’t really a robbery.  It’s living theater!  Help!”

After a couple days in jail, Marilyn’s family paid their bail, hired a lawyer, and eventually got the charge against them reduced to malicious mischief.  The story ends even more sadly: the Examiner ran a front page story about the robbery – and spelled George’s name wrong.  You just don’t do that to an actor.

Then there was Jones.  Jones  was a pork pie hatted cool guy who lived in one of the basement rooms off the ballroom.  He was older, in his thirties, had fought in Korea, smoked a lot of dope, and, memorably, Jones was a ping pong shark.  He never lost!  He could have been a champion if they’d had Olympic table tennis in 1965.

“Hey, let’s play some ping pong.  Maybe for a nickel…hey, I know, how about twenty-five cents?”

“I don’t really feel like playing tonight, Jones”

“Aw, c’mon, man – I need the exercise.  But we have to have to play for something here.  How ’bout fifty cents?”

Then, if the unsuspecting resident gave in,  Jones would ram ball after ball down his throat.  After a while, everybody knew Jones was invincible.  But somehow he would manage to wheedle them into one more game.

What did it feel like to be a vet in your thirties surrounded by kids from an entirely different background?  Big Brother and The Holding Company’s Peter Albin lived at 1090 Page in Jones’ time.  He told me Jones was a kind of big brother himself to the younger, less experienced kids.  He taught them how to not get mugged when they were out on the streets late.  How not to get rousted when they were holding.  How not to get rousted at all if possible.  We needed guys like Jones.  We didn’t all grow up on the mean outskirts of the Fillmore District, but now we were there.

Next door to Jones lived a big girl from Eureka.  She found a good way to make a living but she wouldn’t tell anybody what it was.  Arlene (we’ll call her) would eat dinner in the ballroom with everybody else, then put on a nice dress, say “Well, I’ll see you guys later…” and head out.  Where did she go?  It was a subject that entertained people for weeks until one night she came back to the house in tears.  She’d been busted!  For hooking!  She had to pay a fine.  Turned out crime paid, but it was against the law.  Who knew?  That was the end of her prostitution career.

1090, in spite of contemporary rumors, was never a crash pad. Street people found snoozing in the bathtub were shown the door, forcefully if necessary.   One morning Peter Albin got up and headed for the bathroom.  There he found a scuzzy-looking stranger sleeping in the bath.

” Hey!  Wake up!  You can’t sleep here.”

“Huh? Whadayamean?  Allen Ginsberg told me it was okay!”

As if that clinched the deal.  Somehow Ginsberg had gotten the idea 1090 was open housing for poets and street people who came his way and was sending them to 1090 find a snoozing corner.  It probably was quite a helpful stratagem for Allen, but it completely ignored the facts.  Bathtub sleeping accommodations were not available at 1090 for complete strangers.

Part of the issue, aside from the fact they might be creeps, was –  Rodney had to come up with $600 every month.  Besides freeloaders, from time to time he found himself in conflict with deadbeats.

Peter told me about one time his brother had to get serious. “Somebody in the house stole my Martin 000-18. It was a beautiful pre-war guitar.  We suspected a guy on the third floor had grabbed it and sold it to buy drugs.  He was a deadbeat, hadn’t paid his rent in months, was stoned all the time, and, small problem, he carried a knife.

“Finally, my brother went upstairs and literally kicked the door down. I don’t where he got it – but Rodney borrowed a rifle somewhere, pointed it at the guy and told him to get out of the house right now. He obeyed quite meekly, he was so stoned some people had to help him down the stairs.”

Rodney Waiting By The Door.  1090 Page Street. 1965.

One night in, I guess, early ’65, I walked over to 1090 to see what Rodney was up to.  I found him in the big front room with Skip Henderson, a folksinger I knew slightly from State, and three or four other folksingers I’d seen around.  They were practicing to sound just like the Limelighters, an energetic and hugely successful folk group of the day.  Rodney was tired of being a scruffy old-timey musician.  He and Skip and the rest of the hopefuls were jumping on the bandwagon to fame and fortune.

They called themselves the New Tradition Singers. Rodney was singing in his usual thin, nasally voice and playing fiddle and banjo.  Actually,  I despised the Limelighters –  they sounded like a group you might hear at a Barry Goldwater rally — but I admired the New Tradition Singers’ dead-on commercial instincts.  Why not cash in?  What could go wrong?   And tonight they were extra excited.  Somehow they had scored a demo tape of Bob Dylan doing his new song  Quinn the Eskimo.  Bobby had decided not to record it.  It was being shopped around to other groups.  Could they do something with it?

They sniffed it long.  A successful Bob Dylan cover would be a feather in their cap right at the beginning of their career. Look what it had done for The Turtles!  You couldn’t get bigger than The Turtles!  But, darn it, the song just wasn’t  “Drill Ye Terriers, Drill!” (This was a popular folk song about fierce fox terriers.  The lead fox terrier is urging the others to dig their way out of a dog show.) It wasn’t “This Land Is Your Land'” either.  Or any of the other crowd-pleasers the Limelighters were known for.  It was Quinn The Eskimo! It was about an Eskimo who would make you jump for joy when he got here.  No, this won’t play well in Peoria.  They wouldn’t know what we were singing about.  Neither do we.  Sorry.  We pass.

It was a group decision and normally Rodney would have been unhappy, because he liked the song.  But at the moment there was something even more exciting in hand.  They had suddenly obtained an agent.  Somehow the agent had heard their demo tape and decided they really were going to be the next Limelighters.

And amazingly, she was able to book these unknowns onto baritone John Raitt’s upcoming concert tour, purely on the basis of their demo tape.  This agent must be good!  They got down to serious rehearsing.  They not only practiced the songs, they practiced their banter, they practiced jokes and they practiced comments to the ‘critics’ in the audience.

Loren Means told me about one night when he was alone in the house. “Around midnight the phone started ringing.  It must have rang thirty times.  I knew it wasn’t for me but I finally forced myself to get up and answer it.  Turned out it the woman who was their supposed agent.  She had to speak to Rodney right away! I told her Rodney wasn’t there and she just flipped.  Eventually it turned out the woman was insane.  John Raitt had never heard of her — or them.”

Meanwhile, jamming in the ballroom was becoming a regular ad hoc activity.  For one thing a pretty good jug band named the San Andreas Faultfinders was practicing there and they attracted other players, including Pigpen McKernan.

Loren decided to hold a premiere screening of his new experimental film in the ballroom.  He invited a lot of people besides the 1090 regulars, and it was going to be a big night.  Jack Welpott, a well-known photographer from the SF State Art faculty said he’d come, and –  very cool – artist and fellow filmmaker Bruce Conner said he was coming.  Conner’s star was high at the moment, so Loren and Peter – who knew who he was – were pretty jazzed.  Loren spent the afternoon setting up his 8mm projector and getting the details right.  It would be interesting to see the film, if it still exists, because in a way it was the seed for Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Loren had cut together an ancient short subject (He described it to me as about ‘a chimp who saves a child from drowning’.) with footage from a nudie film he’d bought in one of those sleaze stores on Market Street.  I think you had to be there.

Peter suggested it would be cool if  the film had live musical accompaniment.  That sounded like a good idea to Loren.  Chuck Jones, a  surfing style drummer who lived  at 1090, already had his drums set up, so Peter grabbed his new electric bass, then called his friend Sam Andrew, who lived a block away.  When Sam got there, they both plugged into brother Rodney’s Gibson amplifier, the only one in the house, and fiddled around with Chuck for a while.  Then they were ready.

Funny to think.  As the three improvised to the flickering images, the spirit of Janis Joplin might have been seen by one of those psychic kind of people.  She was whispering very loudly, “Go, you guys!  I’ll see you next year.”

That night Chuck became the so far unnamed Big Brother’s first drummer. And it was the earliest rumbling of the partnership between Peter and Sam, which has endured, by my count, some forty-four years.  They still tour today.

Calligraphy by R. Albin

According to Chet Helms, a hippie named Chris Newton had the idea to formalize the jams, and make them a weekly event.  The Wednesday Night Jam Sessions.  Charge a quarter.  (Jones said, “How ’bout fifty cents?”)  Put up signs.  Invite everybody.

Chris was good at ideas but, typical hippie,  terrible at follow-through – so Chet ran with it.  Rodney drew up the 49-cent discount coupon on a ditto master.  Chet ran it off,  and handed it out down Haight Street.  Sam, Peter and Chuck became the house band.  If you were a singer or a harp player, they would back you up.  If you had your own guitar, you could plug into their amplifier.  If you were a singer, you’d better be a shouter, because no one owned a microphone, and if you brought your own, you’d have to plug it into the same amplifier the guitar and the bass were already overdriving.

In the summer of 1965 the Warlocks (soon to be Grateful Dead) were based in Palo Alto.  The Jefferson Airplane was already playing every night at their house club, The Matrix.  The Charlatans had gone to Virginia City for the summer.  But the other musicians who would create the anti-commercial, improvisatory San Francisco Sound were showing up at the 1090 Page Jam Sessions.

The music got so hot in fact that Chet risked raising admission to seventy-five cents.  And the hippies kept coming.

It was fun, but it was short.  Teenagers from the Avenues crashed the parties, they got rowdy, they tried to start fights with the longhairs, they broke beer bottles on the sidewalk.  It got to be a drag. Chet began looking around for the next big thing.

Chuck, Peter and Sam decided to form a real band.   Chet Helms was looking for the next big thing and, he decided, it just might be managing this exciting new rock band, soon to change their name to Big Brother And The Holding Company.

Chet brought a couple of interesting contacts along with him.  First, he knew a very interesting, self-taught, and slightly bizarre lead guitar player named Jim Gurley.  Local legend had it Gurley had taught himself by locking himself into his room and learning John Coltrane solos off a record.  He sounded like he had, anyway.  Second, Chet knew Bill Graham, and Graham agreed to help them buy equipment.  He cosigned the loan.

They went back to practicing in the ballroom, except now they had two really big, really cheap Danelectro amplifiers.  Peter hated those amps.  “We bought Danelectros because The Great Society had them, and we wanted to be just like the Great Society.  But they had stupid little heads that kept falling over.  What a pain they were.  My bass and one mike went through the first amp.  The guitars and the other mike went through the other.   We weren’t getting many jobs yet, but we were practicing a whole lot.”

Rehearsal with the two Danelectros was now twice as loud as before.  After a few weeks of this, Rodney had enough.  “One night we were so loud Rodney got pissed off,” Peter said. “He came down to the ballroom in his shorts and a tank top with a Superman logo on the front.  He was waving  a pistol.

‘You guys are so fucking loud!  You better stop now or I’m going to kill you all!’

‘But Rodney, we’re just playing music’

‘You call that music? I call it driving me insane!”

After he stomped back upstairs, we all just looked at each other.  We had to find a new place to rehearse.”

Had all this time Rodney (gasp) secretly disliked screechy rock music played over cheap amplifiers  by guys who were still figuring out how to do it?

Peter Kraemer of another early San Francisco Sound band, The Sopwith Camel, had this to say.  “He (Rodney) was one of our earliest players, I think he was playing bass but we had dreams of him playing hot viola. He was a wonderful guy and great player, and had either fear or loathing (or both) of rock and roll. He also said he had an ulcer and wouldn’t consider going “on the road”. We of course being younger and brash were raring to go.”  So they ended up with a young Londoner named Martin Beard on bass.  And Rodney went back to playing folk music.

Looking back on it now, it seems Rodney’s establishment of 1090 Page Street created a center of gravity for the underground that had been missing since they were priced out of North Beach years before, and re-established it in the Haight-Ashbury.  Until then,  the hippies had lived scattered across cheap neighborhoods of the city – the Fillmore, the Mission, Potrero Hill, Bernal Heights.  But once 1090 was in place, the kids who would live out that foolish, divine vision a psychedelic Aquarian Age – and the music that went with it –  began to congregate within walking distance of each other.

Take The Pondering Pig for example.  In the Fall of ’64 I was looking for a place to live.  I dropped in to see Rodney.  He told me 1090 was full at the moment, but he knew a guy named Allen Cohen who had a flat six or seven blocks further up Page Street.  He thought Allen had a room available, try over there.

Allen did, I moved in, and, I was ‘in’ in a much bigger way – as one of the first denizens of the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury, I would take part in its wondering adolescence, its creative full bloom, and its untimely demise.

There’s a lot more to 1090 Page Street’s story, but I won’t tell it here.  The house followed the arc of the neighborhood.  It climbed higher and higher, but then, its descent was brutal.  By the last days of the Summer of Love – only a few bricks in a vacant lot showed where the famous building had stood.

Graphics credits: 1090 God’s Eye: Dennis Nolan; El Teatro Campesino poster: Wolfgang’s Vault; jam session ticket: Pigfiles; Photo Rodney in the doorway Peter Albin; Photo pre-Janis Big Brother and the Holding Company © 2008 Michael Rachoff; photo 1090 Page St. SF Pub Library.

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 1 of 6)

Here begins, in six parts, the story of the rise and fall of a small student community in San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the years 1962-64. It will be told by three people who lived there, in their own words. However, this installment begins with The Pondering Pig’s own ruminations on those lost years in that lost world…

When I finally made it to San Francisco in the summer of 1961, I moved into a boarding house on Twenty-Sixth Street between Castro and Noe. In those days, Noe Valley was a forgotten blue-collar neighborhood at the end of the 24 Divisadero bus line: mostly white, mostly respectable, mostly peaceful. Cats yowled in the backyard outside my window in the night, and that was about it. In those days, old bohemian North Beach had fallen on hard times, but it was still the only cool place to breathe. Twenty-sixth Street was about as far away from the Beach as an aspiring beat poet such as myself could get, and still live in the City.

I was nineteen. I’d traveled through Mexico during the spring. I was too gone to move home. I needed a cheap place. My best friend’s girl, Susan Haylock, had moved in too. We were going to go to summer session at San Francisco State. We were two flecks in an immigrant stream heading towards the Haight-Ashbury of the Sixties and beyond to today.

A frazzled-looking Negro woman (In 1961, Negro was still the term of respect) named Louise Amos ran the house. Her hipster husband had run off with a longhaired blonde the year before, and left her to lurch through life on her own. She kept up the best front she could, and was raising their two kids to be friendly and polite. The people at the much larger Fulton Street commune helped her get her own pad up and running.

The Fulton Street People lived in a turreted Queen Anne a couple blocks west of Divisadero Street. They shared everything, except each other, as far as I knew. They shopped, cooked, cleaned house, paid bills communally. I didn’t understand their lifestyle, it just was. Sue and I showed up once or twice a week to take bread with them.

They were mostly in their mid-twenties, already formed people. They weren’t beat. In fact, I couldn’t find anyone in the City who copped to being beat. I learned what I didn’t know I knew: people who have found themselves object to being assigned a title of any kind. The Fulton Street people lived together for fun and cheapness.

I learned there were other communes in their network: the Central Street House, the O’Farrell Street House. It was at one of those communes, the O’Farrell Street House, that I scored peyote for my first psychedelic excursion: little green cacti, legally mailed from Rose’s Cactus Garden in Laredo, Texas.

When school started for real in the Fall, I learned that communities like these were peppered across the Fillmore District and Potrero Hill. There were student communes and student co-ops and plain old flats where people shared the rent and that’s it. There were peacenik communes and folknik co-ops and drugnik flats. There were Wobbly communes and Trotskyite co-ops and grungy flats inhabited by people who liked to drink coke laced with cherry-flavored codeine cough syrup and nobody paid the rent. (Look, I’m assigning them titles. But how else can we talk?) All were inhabited by young Bohemians who lived together by mutual interest or by chance. None were as organized as the Fulton Street House, but they didn’t need to be. They were following a well worn path.

What follows is the story of one such community, the 857 Divisadero Street group, important to the little history of my time and place as predecessor to the famous boho rooming house, 1090 Page Street. Which was, in turn, the match to the Haight-Ashbury flash that briefly illuminated the world in 1966-67.

857 Divisadero was inhabited from late 1962 to the summer of 1964 by at least ten young bohemians. People moved in and out, of course, but the mainstays were stage magician and inventor William Dahlgren, avant-garde filmmaker Loren Means, sorcerer Edmund Robere, computational linguist Gerald Keil, art conservator Nathan Zakheim, and the folk musician/ craftsman Rodney Albin. None of them knew then they would have descriptions tacked in front of their names. In those days, they were all, except for Edmund the Mad Magician, kids going to school at San Francisco State.

Rodney Albin, William Dahgren and Edmund Robere aren’t around any more, so I asked three of the survivors to write down their memories of those days. Here’s their story, told in their own words, beginning as Loren Means graduates from high school in Yankton, South Dakota.

NEXT: LOREN MEANS’ STORY

To Go to Part 2, click here.

Voices From The Haight #1: A Walk Through San Francisco, Dec. 26, 1967

Continuing on my theme of recreating the sixties-era Haight-Ashbury as I actually knew it, as opposed to the mountains of hype that have been generated about it, I’m going to post some contemporary accounts – written by people who lived there – while they lived there.   Let’s start with Walrus Pemmican…

I knew Walrus well.  At the time of this letter, he had fallen on hard times.  Nearly twenty-six years old, he had finally split for good from his beautiful wife Linda Lovely.  He was living a cheap rooming house on Divisadero Street.  He called it The Black Hotel.  He had just lost his job at the post office when the authorities discovered he couldn’t load trucks because he had a serious heart murmur. He missed his four year old daughter desperately.  He visited her nearly every night to read her bedtime story.

I guess he was feeling more on the ‘On your own with no direction home’ side of life than the ‘All you need is love’ side.  He’d gone home for Christmas the day before, where someone had snapped the photo that graces this page.  Today he is back on Diviz…

12-26-67

Hi girl –

Back in the city, I am sitting on my fire-escape in the sultry dusk overlooking Divisadero – drinking Spur malt liquor and watching curly black heads pass between my feet – what a summer day it is!  Who would imagine this to be the day after Christmas!  Folks drinking beer on their front steps, kids rollin by, the tops down on their convertibles, the aroma of beans and pepper drifting up to me from Bishop’s Soul Food below in the pinkening twilight.  What a sweet day.

Today I ran errands – I stirred up the dust in my room and reshuffled my books and pencils and tapes, then ran down to Market St. – walking up and down in the December heat, doing errands – took my old Smith-Corona to be cleaned and repaired – $17.50 it will be, then to the bank, deposited my P.O. wages $151 dollars – it will be gone in 4 days, I’ll pay some bills, give you some bread,  and phoosh, gone – but that’s all right, ma.

The girl at the bank window knows me, she tells me about her real five-course American dinner (she’s Greek), then back up steaming Market St.  I stop to eat some pineapple cottage cheese in front of the laundromat, and wander into all those hi-fi stores, to stare at things I lust for – 500 tape recorders you can stick in your pocket and catch the lion’s roar, the smirk of the savant  – I visit Gyro Gearloose (ed. note: Rodney Albin) in his shop, making an electric violin, his ability with his hands fascinates me, I feel out of place in a place of hands, he shows me his latest lovely dulcimer, plaintive, hearts carved into the wood…

This day – I visit John Chance, but he is not home, so I walk through the magic Panhandle – every tree is golden today, every shape perfect, a park for lovers – I meet Peter Albin, he is going to play with Chuck Berry this weekend, to me it seems like a great honor but he takes it in his stride – used to playing with the great I guess – His wife, Cynthia, is dressed in an amazing violet Pucci print and looks twelve months pregnant, she stands apart, waiting for Peter to finish his jiving, then they walk on through the golden day.  I walk on, stop at Diane Warne’s; not home.

So now I sit in the deepening day.  It’s purple now, and I feel Spur in my brain.  Saxophones cry up from below – I love you woman – Tell me your day now.

WP

I wonder if Walrus ever got that tape recorder that would capture ‘the smirk of the savant’.  It must have been really sensitive.

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.

COMING SOON: THE  STORY OF 1090 PAGE STREET

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