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 4 of 6)

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

To begin at Part 1, click here.

Gerald Keil’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Loren Means remembers the neighborhood differently.

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

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

NEXT: EDMUND THE MAD MAGICIAN

To continue to Part 5, click here.

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.

Shadows of the Spanish Civil War

men-in-battle

I received the following today from Eva Wilson and I think it’s important. Eva and I have been friends, despite great gaps of years and miles, since the fall of 1961, when I first met her on the foggy lawns of San Francisco State.  She was Eva Bessie then, and I didn’t know yet that her father was Alvah Bessie, Academy award nominated screenwriter and member of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.  He was beaten up pretty bad by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, but never asked forgiveness for being a man of honor.  He went to prison for a year (“contempt of Congress’) and, when he got out, he couldn’t get work writing anymore.  Then he found a job stage managing for the old hungry i nightclub in San Francisco, working lights and sound for acts like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Professor Irwin Corey.

PILGRIMAGE

abraham_lincoln_battalion_buttonI had the great privilege of taking a dual pilgrimage in October to Spain and France with my brother and sister-in-law.  We attended a 70th reunion of the leaving of the Spanish Civil War Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from Spain in Barcelona. Even though their cause was defeated by the fascists, their spirit was a flame to encourage the determination to defeat fascists coming up in World War II. Our father, Alvah Bessie, was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and we followed some of his rigorous and perilous journey, with inadequate gear, freezing weather, and very little food, in our comfortable little car, stopping at sights and cafes along the way. If anyone would be interested in a great tale of this war, read my father’s book, “Men in Battle,” which is considered a classic in his genre. There were brave and strong soldiers, mostly untrained, from around the world, and some are still alive. “Spanish Notebooks,” also by my father, is another great journal of his experiences, edited only slightly.

After the grandeur of the Pyrenees Mountains, complete with snow and chalet villages, we went to Lourdes, France, to visit the grotto of Saint Bernadette, where she saw visions of the Virgin Mary on many occasions. She inspired me at age 13, through the Hollywood movie, and I choreographed a ballet based on her life. I was an official card-not-carrying mystic, in a family of lefty, cards-lost agnostics! Oh, well. I am still a mystic, and am proud of and delighted that I was raised in a free thinking family, devoted to good causes.

I enclose some meaningful snapshots of the journey, for those curious about this incredible trip. There are some Vets still alive, and I was able to get a snapshot of one, Jack Shafran. The event was in beautiful Barcelona and Sitges, a resort town.  People came from all over the world.  Music of the Spanish Civil War played and flags were flying from that period. The sixties was not the only time of inspiration!

eva-with-vet_edited-1

And now we have Obama. Trust him; he’ll do the right thing, I believe. I hope.

Eva Wilson

men-in-battle-pbackMen in Battle: A Story of Americans in Spain

spanish-notebooksAlvah Bessie’s Spanish Civil War Notebooks

More Books And Films By Or About Alvah Bessie

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

Lucy Lewis

I dreamed I saw Lucy Lewis last night,
alive as you and me.
“Lucy, I hardly knew yuh”, I said.
“I came to your dream anyway,” said she.

She smiled, but vague. I dreamed I said…

“I see you, Lucy. I see you walking across the San Francisco State commons in the fog with your dark-haired clone Lenore.

“Why, Lucy, you’re still wearing your black leotards, you’re still wearing your black tights you’re still exhaling coolness like rose perfume, you still even have acne!

“You and George Hunter are still producing the Happening in the Gallery Lounge Spring 1964. You choreographing it, George is making space music for it at the Tape Music Center and it sounds like a snowy midnight somewhere in 1840 or 2140 or out in the galaxy far past the farthest comet.

“I’m still holding your robe! What kind of dream is this anyway? I see black lights, strobe lights every kind of night light.

“You are unearthly and George’s gold front tooth is glistening wet and insane in the black light midnight.

“Who is carrying your crystal coffin? Why, it’s four Rodney Albins all wearing swallowtail coats and stovepipe hats and emanating theatrical gloom! I see. They’re marching the dead march for you until Lenore rises from her coffin like a ghost of love lost and dances a sad waltz in her diaphanous gown with the spotlight reflecting off cases filled with basketball trophies from 1948, 1949, 1956 and your well-trained raven and Edgar Allen Poe candles

burning my heart and fingers and then

your raven flew down from the trophy case and quoth ‘Nevermore’ no more.”

But you said,

“Who is George Hunter? Who is Lenore? Why am I in your dream?”

And I knew for certainty you lost your memory in sorrow that will never end in this life.

Because we were standing on the fifth floor of the Hearst Building at Third and Market in San Francisco waiting for the elevator and we were saying goodbye because we would never come here no more and I was grieving too.

I was grieving for my tough newspaperman father who had his office on this very floor where he smoked Chesterfields and Camels and bashed out a daily column and put on his fedora and hiked to the Nugget to interview Lola Albright. And I will never see him no more in this life no matter how much I miss him and Lucy Lewis was come to sorrow with me

because she was the angel of grief.

But she had lost her memory.

Photo by Patrushka

It’s Too Late, She’s Gone

Yesterday I learned Bess died. The beautiful girl whose strings are tied into my heart as fast today as they were the last time I saw her in 1968. My sad girl, my wicked girl, a friend who was a lot like me. Somehow I always thought I’d see her again one day and she’d tell me she was all right. She had come through. But she never did.

I first met Bess at San Francisco State in the fall of 1961. I was new on the scene and didn’t know anybody yet. I’d just transferred to State after a season of traveling in Mexico and New York. One night in October or thereabouts I went to an all-night vigil for peace outside the Commons, the schools’ poor attempt at a student union. I brought my Mexican guitar and sang Pretty Polly and We Shall Overcome and There Once Was A Union Maid through the night as the frat boys taunted us and threw eggs. By morning I knew all the peaceniks, the people who became my comrades for next few years, Solveig Otvos, Don Auclaire, Peter Weiss, Bob Kuehn, Eva Bessie, Peter Kraemer, Carmen O’Shaughnessy…and Bess.

Bess didn’t notice I existed, of course. Isn’t that how these stories start? Maybe she smiled at me once, I’m not sure. It wasn’t till months later I realized she was nearly blind without her glasses, which she refused to wear and she probably couldn’t see me.

Somebody invited me to a party on Clayton Steet that weekend, and Bess was there. Some haunting quality in her face drew me towards her. It must been her face because we’d never spoken. To me she was a charming, Audrey Hepburned sort of long-haired, brunette, eighteen or nineteen, mildly pre-Raphaelite, the kind of girl we called ‘woodsie-nymphsie.’ She had a big crush on a pink-cheeked, black bearded young radical named Steve something. She looked longingly at him, I looked longingly at her, and I sang “Oh my love, I’ve hungered for your touch a long lonely time” with great feeling. The party got real quiet. I had a good voice in those days and I knew how to sing.

Well, Bess and I never got together in the way you’re expecting, because Margarita got in the way. Margarita Bates. For now, let me just say she was peerless, I hungered for her magical presence, and Bess disappeared in her shadow – except she didn’t really. Instead, the oddest thing happened. Bess and I became friends.

As my love affair with Margarita proceeded from horror to horror, I found solace with Bess. She understood. She listened. She cared about me. As we got to know each other better, I discovered we also shared sensibilities. We both liked the same books, the same films, the same foggy streets, and we shared the same sliced up feeling inside.

As the sixties slowly burned down to the stub, I was never far from Bess. We spent days together wandering North Beach, drinking coffee in The Enigma or The Hot Dog Palace, playing Desafinado over and over on the juke box, sharing intimate secrets or just gossiping about mutual friends. I called her Ivich, after the character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy.

Late one afternoon in 1962 we were hanging out in Solveig’s place on Page Street. Solveig wasn’t home from work yet and there were just the two of us, listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet on Solveig’s record player. The late afternoon light faded away until there was only the light spreading from the little kitchen. You can guess what happened. Our buried longing for each other took over, and we lay together on the couch in the darkness until Solveig got home.

I felt horribly guilty, because I was married to somebody else, who was pregnant with my child. Cheating on my wife was the last thing I wanted to do, I thought. Turned out I was wrong. We never touched each other again. But I couldn’t keep away from Bess. I loved her.

Funny, I never considered that spending so much time with another woman was a form of cheating.

Bess was never cool, never a freak. She got her BA in English in the requisite four years, married an earnest young carpenter, settled down in an apartment on Downey Street and got a big dumb Afghan dog. She grew fat. She was unhappy. She was a bore. She didn’t go to the concerts or listen to the bands. But I couldn’t keep away from here for long, she was too deep a part of my life. Their apartment was a regular stop on my rounds of the Haight-Ashbury. Her husband got me work on his remodeling crew. By 1967 though, we had lost touch. Our lives had finally diverged too far. It was around then they moved home to Marin County.

OK, my first wife and I eventually split up and by mid-1968 I was living in the Eureka Valley neighborhood. The Haight had become a threadbare circus. The Hell’s Angels and meth freaks were taking over and the original hippies had mostly moved on.

But one morning I was over there for some reason, and standing and laughing on the street with a group of freaks I’d never seen before – I saw Bess. She was thin again. She was extroverted. She was merry. She was delighted to see me. She introduced me to her new friends and I was polite but I could see right away they were creeps, and they gave me the creeps. OK, I admit it. I was a complete snob in those days. Only the original hippies were cool. Everyone else please show your hip credentials before I’ll speak to you. But I knew a creep when I saw one, and they looked like creeps to me. Speed freaks.

We exchanged phone numbers and Bess (who by now was calling herself Lenore) invited me to a party at her house in Marin that weekend. I was playing guitar and singing with Hugh Harris at the time and suggested he come with me so we could try out our new set at the party. Saturday night we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge in Hugh’s VW bug, and soon we were somewhere deep in the redwood sided streets of Corte Madera.

‘Lenore’ met me at the door in a transparent gown with a drink in her hand. Her new friends were eating and drinking and grinning at me, showing off their missing teeth. Scott, Lenore’s husband, was kept busy running out for more beer. While he was gone, Lenore made laughing, snide comments about him. His earnest, straight-forward self was comedy material to her new crowd. There were no other women at the party.

I got the creeps big time and withdrew into myself. Hugh and I played some tunes, I talked with Scott a little bit, and we left early. On the drive back to the City, I realized we’d been dosed with MDA, the “love drug”. It must have been in the punch.

The high itself was nice, pleasant. It wasn’t that. It’s that she hadn’t told me. It was her little joke, a mischievous joke on me.

That was it. I wrote Bess out of life. She shouldn’t have done that. She broke my trust. And I didn’t dig her new friends.

I’ve never forgotten that night, and the knowledge I knew my dear girl was in trouble and I just wrote her off. Why didn’t I say something? Beat her up? Ask her what the fuck she was doing? Listen to her like she’d listened to me. Cared about her. Been there for her.

I was such a hippie. No interference. That’s cool, man. Good-bye.

I looked for her half-heartedly over the years. She’d moved. Changed her name. Who knew? But I always thought one day I’d see her again. And her face has haunted me these long years.

The other day Greg Hoffman mentioned he was going to interview Wes Wilson for his new book. Wes is the artist who basically created the psychedelic dance poster in his early work for the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. I remembered his wife had been Bess’s best friend in those early days at State, so I asked Greg to see if Eva knew what become of her. Last night Greg called me. She’s laying in the ground these fifteen years. From uterine cancer. I’ll never see her no more. It’s too late, she’s gone.