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

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

Where Are the Liverpool Invasion Three?

Sorry I haven’t been around today. I’ve been out shopping. Up and down Main Street with my shopping bag looking for a skull. I needed one so I can go up in my pear tree and meditate on the transitoriness of life. St. Francis thought highly of the practice so I thought I should try it.

Well, I finally found one and it’s pretty nice. It was in the back at the Dollar Store. In fact, there was a whole box of them. I think the Pirates of the Caribbean ride must have been overstocked. But I like it fine. It glows in the dark too, which could come in handy in the pear tree if I’m up there at night or if I want to play a joke on the neighbors. And it has a lid I can take off and put things inside.

So far it hasn’t worked out too well though. I try to meditate on memento mori, like my blogger friend Paula says, but my visions come out more like besame mucho. Instead of the yawning pit, I keep having visions of tiny Snickers bars. And little Butterfingers.

Anyway, while I was out shopping, I got to thinking about the Liverpool Invasion Three. You might not remember them but they were pretty big in 1965. They even played my high school once. I still have Nigel Twist’s autograph somewhere.

Those guys had some interesting songs. Of course there was their big hit, Just A Bit of Fun, but in a way their famous “answer songs” were even more interesting. Like when the Righteous Brothers had their hit, You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, the LI3 came out with Hey, I Found Your Lovin’ Feeling (You Left It On The Counter At The Market.)

Come to think of it, I guess it wasn’t as clever as I thought it was at the time.

Maybe they were more of a cult thing. They never got really big, like, say, Herman’s Hermits or Freddy And The Dreamers. But they were big in San Mateo, where I grew up. With their high pointy collars and skinny black ties and winklepicker boots — it was like they brought Carnaby Street right to my hometown. Ziggy, Ignatz and Nigel – I wonder where you are today?

At the time I actually had a friend Ignatz who lived down the street from me. It was uncanny how much he looked like Ignatz Loverman from the Liverpool Invasion Three. But he was a San Mateo kid like me. Plain old Ignatz Ratzkiwatzki. Kids made fun of him on the schoolbus. But sometimes when he’d been using his pimple cream, in a certain light with a Beatle wig on he could almost be one of them. It made me wonder but I never asked him about it. I think he must have wanted to be just like Iggy though, cause sometimes I would catch him practicing talking with a Liverpool accent. And he would go in his garage for hours and practice all Iggy’s famous bass runs. It’s too bad that when the LI3 played our Grad Night, poor Ignatz didn’t show up. He was so shy.

Well, life is strange, eh? Today Ignatz Ratzkiwatzki owns the Family Pharmacy at 3rd and B Streets. He’s real big in the Rotary Club too. As for Iggy Loverman, he just disappeared forever like so many great musicians of the past. Someday I’d like to find those guys but I guess it’ll never happen. The good die young, they say…

What Happened To Playland-at-the-Beach?

1958 00 Susana at Playland San Francisco copy

Is it true all good things must finally come to an end? It was certainly true for Playland at the Beach, the great amusement park that once promenaded along the western coast of San Francisco, out by the edge of Golden Gate Park. In its heyday in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, even into the late Fifties, the place rocked with kids and young people and sailors and fun – and they measured their cost in nickels. San Franciscans didn’t need a car to get there because Playland was at the end of a couple of streetcar lines, as amusement parks usually were in the early twentieth century.

A traveler climbing aboard the B car heading downtown late on a weekend afternoon in the 1950s might find himself surrounded by packed-in black families from the Fillmore District. They were heading home tired, cranky and sandyfooted after a terrific cotton candy and enchiladas day. Latino families from the Mission, Irish and Italian families from the Richmond and Sunset districts, city teenagers mixed with teens from San Bruno all the way to San Mateo twenty miles down the brand new Bayshore Freeway, they were were hotfooting down the Midway, looking for fun, looking for thrills, looking for girls. On sunny days in September, Ocean Beach itself, across the Great Highway, was packed with families on blankets listening to big black portable radios or dabbling their toes in the ferociously cold surf. As Bugsy said to Shifty back in 1957, “I want to stick around while I get my kicks!”

I don’t know what happened, but parks like Playland were closing all over the country. Perhaps the opening of the original Disneyland in 1955 had something to do with it. Week after week Walt Disney used his television show, conveniently named Disneyland, to flog the wonders and delights of his new Magic Kingdom. Maybe the traditional family-oriented park at the edge of the big city was looking a little tawdry and old fashioned. Most young people had access to cars now. They could drive to big modern theme parks like Great America, the Bay Area’s first. It was (and is) just off the Bayshore Freeway, and, unlike Playland way out at the edge of a labyrinthine city, is easily accessible by millions of Bay Area families.

Besides, by the 1950s, the blue collar and middle-class families that formed Playland’s primary market were leaving the City in droves, off to their new martinis and togetherness playgrounds in the suburbs. But let’s not talk about that sorrowful day in 1954 when the moving van arrived at our beautiful San Francisco house on 47th Avenue two blocks from the vast, fogbound, eternal Pacific ocean and trucked the furniture to our new, open floor plan, wall to wall windows and a patio, subdivision miracle stranded on a mudflat on the San Francisco Bay. It’s too traumatic. I think I’ve been trying to get back home my whole life.

The young urban professionals who took their places, filling the swinging Tony Bennett bars on Union Street, were not likely to suggest a date night at Playland riding the Wild Mouse.

More tomorrow.
Photo of Playland, 1958 by my brother Gary.

Pigs Gotta Dance

Been trying to write more about my Dad. There he comes before me in joie de vie vision doing a soft shoe in our living room in San Mateo, California to Toot Toot Toosie Goodbye. Then Mom comes into my vision and they spin a smart fox trot around the living room.

Here’s what Dad taught me:
A dancing pig always always beats a philosopher.
Work should be fun even though it is work.
It’s fun being famous and we should all strive for it.
Trivial, inconsequential, who cares? The thing is to get out tomorrow’s column (I never believed him on this point.)
Here’s what’s important: to dance and sing and play a squawky violin and write and tell stories and laugh in great snoots and spill your glass of wine with every sweeping gesture at the dinner table.
And I know it’s true.
But I find tears falling on my keyboard and I can’t write anymore.