Music always “loomed large” in my life and story.
From early on, it was far more to me than entertainment and diversion. It spoke to something deep inside me, reached and moved me in ways that few things did.
Some of that was an intellectual exercise, especially as I got into my teens and began to explore work outside the popular genres; blues and folk for the most part. The lyrics, and frank, often unpolished, performances spoke of truth to a boy who, appearance of privilege notwithstanding, felt himself an outcast, a stranger in his own land if you will.
Reading (be it novels, poetry, political polemics, or whatever came to hand) was a comfort in this regard as well; and the best writing brought at least momentary feelings of relief and transcendence. But there was all that and something more in the music.
By the time I was in my early to mid teens, I was slipping away many evenings to hang at the local folk coffeehouse, soaking up both the music and a social scene that seemed filled with other misfits. There was even a brief, abortive effort to learn to play guitar. I spent about a year transposing guitar chord charts (I was left handed), training my fingers into those awkward positions, learning to tune, and strumming my way earnestly through the simplest standards from Sing Out! magazine.
Eventually I had to confront the fact that I had no more aptitude for the guitar than I had found for the clarinet in 6th Grade Band Class when I tried to learn it in one of my earliest attempts to please my unpleasable father, who had played semi-professionally as a young man. I remember explaining to someone at the time: “I really love good guitar music. There is a lot of bad guitar playing in the world. I choose not to add to it.”
So, becoming a ramblin’ shamblin’ folk hero, nor a shredding guitar god were not to be my ticket out. Any more than I was gonna suddenly wake up one morning magically struck with physical coordination that would lead to a professional baseball or basketball career. But damn, I did love the music.
Lucky for me, the accident of birth had put me in the right place at the right time. Coming of age on the San Francisco Peninsula, just as the City’s folk scene was taking its first nascient steps toward transforming into the behemoth that became known within a few years as The San Francisco Sound.
Rock, folk, blues, a couple sprinkles of jazz (and even, in a handful of cases, classical training); it was all tossed into a blender along with the remnants of the North Beach “beat” culture of the ’50s and early ’60s, a significant dose of political thought provided by echoes of the civil rights movement and the inescapable fact that the Vietnam War hung over all our heads. Add some color and spice (provided in part by new frontiers in mind altering chemistry) and the sudden jolt of the Baby Boom effect — young people representing a higher percentage of the population than ever before and identifying themselves as distinct and apart from the broader culture. And wham, here I was, young and energetic, standing at the center of the whirlwind.
Take all of the above as setting, and it seems almost inevitable that a kid who’d been cutting school since sophmore year to hitchhike to San Francisco and spend his afternoons ensconsced in the basement of City Lights Bookstore reading material he’d never find in San Mateo, was bound to fall into the embryonic Haight-Ashbury scene and slip gratefully into the first environment in his young life where he didn’t feel like an outsider.
But let’s bring it back around to the music. Down on the Peninsula, bars that featured rock bands were beginning to supplant the folk scene, at least in my neck of the woods, and I found myself loitering outside the back doors of such establishments, hungry for the music. So hungry in fact that, at times, I’d slip into those back doors and join the folks a few years older who were clogging the small dance floor, free-form moving to the music. Of course, the bouncers were not amused, but damn I wanted to be there.
By 1966, something called “dance-concerts” were gaining traction in San Francisco. Events that did not rely on drink sales from a full bar to break even, and thus weren’t subject to strict “21 and over” requirements. I’d found my home away from home.
All this is by way of context and prelude to what I really wanted to talk about. That’s ahead in Part II.