Somewhere in a box of unsorted cassette tapes, stashed somewhere in my stuff, there is (I hope) still a tape I made of Elizabeth Cotten performing live in a tiny club (I can’t even remember the name of the establishment) on Upper Grant Avenue one night in the 1970s.
It was a magical evening for the 50 or so folks who were there.
I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life in and around music and musicians; I can’t think of anyone more gracious, charming, and warm than Libba Cotten.
The woman (who must have been in her 80s then) just held the room in the palm of her hand all evening, exuding a center of love, peace and humility which was remarkable.
Oh, and yes. Even then, she could play and she could sing. In her simple, direct fashion, to be sure. But in a way that compelled respect; not by force, but by generosity.
One of the privileges of my life to have spent an evening breathing the same air as she.
Had the chance Sunday to sit over a long, leisurely coffee with an old and dear friend from my sweet youth. Renée LeBallister, known to many Bay Area concert goers in the late ’60s through the mid ’70s as “Renée the Dancer”, or even just “That Amazing Dancing Lady” was passing through, and made time to get together.
We covered a lot of ground over the course of a two and half hour visit, from the night a grumbling Bill Graham swept the stage for her before a Quicksilver Messenger Service set because Cipollina insisted “she dances or I don’t play” to what it meant for a little lost girl to find her chance to “live in the spaces between the music” and create a way to hold fast and reinvent herself.
I came to know her first when I worked for Chet Helms at his Family Dog venues. She enjoyed a slot on the Permanent Guest List, a unique phenomenon of all Chester’s events and facilities.
The common oral history about San Francisco’s music scene of that time is that Chet Helms “was a horrible businessman” while Graham was the guy who always knew how to make the bottom line run in the black. Which is true, as far as it goes, but doesn’t really tell the whole story.
There are reasons that underlay Bill Graham’s reputation as a tough taskmaster and master negotiator, many of them good and honorable, and I expect I’ll explore them in another post at some point. For now, suffice it to say we did indeed need someone like him to keep the collective ship afloat. And the music scene has held far less texture since his death. Or, as the Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner is said to have observed in conversation outside Graham’s memorial service: “Bill was an asshole, but he was our asshole.”
Ultimately, Chet Helms never really saw himself as a “concert promoter” in the Graham mold. Chester (who was, by the way, a preacher’s kid) always was focused on evangelizing for the transformative possibilities we all believed were inherent in the counter culture we were collectively engaged in inventing on the fly.
In that context, the Family Dog’s primary task was not to “entertain” or “put on a good show.” It was to provide the space, and the seed elements, to facilitate attendees/participants in creating an environment where unexpected, potentially spiritually uplifting, educational, and just plain ecstatic events might occur.
Chet relied on many tools to nurture that potential experience including immersive light shows, the best music he could book, what passed for state of the art audio systems in those days; all of it fostering an environment that strongly prioritized participation (especially dancing) over spectating. Really any and every piece he could dream up and toss into the stew that was “a night with the Dog.”
Now this is where the Permanent Guest List comes into play. Because one of the factors that Chet had determined contributed greatly to fostering the “vibe” he sought to create was seeding the crowd with folks who, in one way or another, added an element to the pageant (could be aural, visual, aromatic — any number of things). And he also looked for people who could function as catalyst, inspiring audience members to get more actively involved (for further reference, check any number of live Grateful Dead recordings in which Bob Weir implores: “Come on everybody, get up and dance. It won’t kill ya!”).
All of which, brings me back ’round to Renée. She fit the bill on both counts. Anyone who ever watched her on stage with The Dead, Quicksilver, or a number of other San Francisco bands will tell you, all these decades later, that they still recall her fluid and seamless connection with, and interpretation of, the music. Not to mention her trademark back bends that took her to an almost horizontal position from the waist up, while continuing to dance and move gracefully in a manner that seemed to defy the laws of physics. It could be a hypnotic, almost other-worldly thing to witness.
And yet, simultaneously, Renée was also able to encourage mere mortals to move their bodies as well. Like many of the musicians of the time her goal, whether she was on stage with a band or down on the floor with the crowd, was to affirm and inspire participation. She got a hell of a lot of people on their feet who, objectively, were whole orders of magnitude less graceful than she but who, nevertheless, had a hell of a good time “shakin’ that thang.”
After we closed the Family Dog on the Great Highway, I worked for Chet’s old partner Bob Cohen, who had a semi-thriving live sound reinforcement business by then, renting PA rigs and crews to bands and clubs as needed through much of the ’70s.
But after a time, Bob grew frustrated when, on a couple live recording jobs, he couldn’t communicate between the truck and crew inside the venue due to the fact there wasn’t an intercom and headset system capable of overcoming the sound pressure levels of live rock concerts. So, trained engineer that he was, Cohen invented his own system because he needed it. It featured sealed headphones so the on-stage and front of house crews could hear, and a noise-canceling mic so our talk back transmissions would be intelligible to him in the recording truck.
That system eventually became the original ClearCom product and Bob soon found himself out of the sound business, keeping his workers busy assembling headsets for sale.*
That was my signal to move on, I transitioned to a series of jobs in clubs and supporting small to mid level bands on gigs. I continued to run into Renée from time to time at events, but contact was sporadic.
Sometime around 1980 I moved down to Santa Cruz County and lost track of her completely, as I did many folks from my rock ‘n’ roll youth. It’s only been in the last decade or so, with the advent of Facebook, that I’ve reconnected with most friends, colleagues, and fellow cosmic warriors from those days.
And it was just a few years back that one of my dearest friends, still working and known in the circles where it matters as one of the best live sound guys in the Bay Area, told me Renée had relocated to Southern California and gave me her married name(!) so I could track her down.
Thus we got hooked up on The Facebook, did that quick two or three paragraph mini-biography private message thing that you do, and started following each other’s feeds. A couple years ago, she and Luther were passing through the area and stopped by for one of those somewhat stilted “getting to reknow you” visits.
But this trip up (they were in the area to support a daughter who is transferring from their local community college to Cal State Monterey Bay) we really had a chance to “set a spell,” comb back over our mutual inventories of bands, scenes, and and friends (living and dead), and compare notes about how each of us experienced that unique moment in space/time that was the San Francisco Music Scene in the Age of Hippie.
Looking back together from the vantage point of our current late season of life, with some understanding and perspective — and yes, some tender sympathy for those young, damaged kids who were trying to find themselves a better way — was a warm and mellow exercise.
At least for me, in light of my medical prospects, there’s a certain urgency to having these sort of conversations. But I think all of us in our age cohort, regardless of our health status or other factors, are pretty clear at this point that “leaving it for later” really means “it’s unlikely that’s actually going to happen.” We’ve all lost far too many people we love over the past five or ten years as the herd thins and we age out.
So it’s important for us to spend this time with each other when we can. Not just for nostalgia value, though that can certainly be pleasant enough at times. But to compare notes; to check each other’s recollections; to share experiences and lessons learned.
Just one example: Much as it’s comfortable for me to self-identify as “a good ally,” supportive and always the guy who can be relied upon, it truly is stunning at times to realize the stuff I missed; just completely didn’t see, thanks to my unconscious privilege and sense of entitlement as a cis white male.
Listening to some of Renée’s tales of what she had to endure as a single woman making her way in the very male dominated and macho structure of the music scene of that time was a real education for me. The assumptions that were automatically made about who she was in that world, why she was there and what she ought to be willing to do to secure her place in it were, frankly, appalling.
Like so many of the “flower children,” Renée was working to shake off the scars and traumas of a difficult, abusive upbringing. And some of the coping skills that partially formed kid had come up with to find her place in the world were, ultimately, unhealthy and didn’t serve her well.
But she also had a remarkable talent, the motivation to develop it into a unique and beautiful performance art, and the grace, wit, and intelligence to learn to apply it, finding for herself room to live in the space between the music.
And all of us who saw her dance, danced with her, or had the privilege to share a little time found ourselves and our lives the richer for it.
It was such a delight to hang with you yesterday, Renée. I do hope the universe aligns such that we have the chance to do it again. And if not, I truly treasure the reconnection regardless.
*After a few years, Cohen sold ClearCom to some corporate behemoth, netting enough money to ensure a life of comfortable retirement from that point forward. Sometimes, necessity is indeed a mother.
Word came yesterday that John Perry Barlow’s run is finally complete; the last several years have been a damned rough road for him and, in that sense, I’m grateful to hear he was able to just lay his hammer down and let go in his sleep.
I’ve said a little, and reposted some things over on Facebook. And I’m certainly gratified to see some of the “younger folk,” who know Barlow primarily, if not exclusively, from his terribly important work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (the internet ecosystem in which we function and thrive today would, in many ways, not exist without the vision and labor of JPB and his cyber-compadres) posting up on the Twitter machine and vowing to continue to carry the fight forward in his memory. Aside: I think that’s so terribly important now. My cohort and I are old, with some hard earned life lessons but without the energy it always has and always will require to carry the fight to the entrenched power.
But I wanted to take a moment here to recall, and pass along some thoughts he shared a while back.
See, my history with Barlow dates back to when we were both young and frisky, running wild in and around scenes involving a gang of colorful outlaws that was becoming known, even then, as The Dead Family. I was never a fully pledged member of that brotherhood; I had an instinct for preserving my options and independence that kept me from completely buying in, at any level. But it’s fair to say I had a cordial and respectful “peer to peer working relationship,” if we can even try to characterize stuff that was happening in the 1960s and ’70s with 21st Century terminology.
Whatever you choose to call it, I knew Barlow when we were both playing the role of free-range, hard riding, young blood “neo cowboys.” It was a period when a lot of interesting exploration occurred, fun things happened, dangerous territory was occupied, and mistakes were made.
Some of us have survived. Some didn’t. Most of us who remained learned a lesson or two — some of us more slowly than others.
So, all of this is by way of getting around to sharing with you something Barlow posted up a decade or so ago, when he turned 60. To clarify, the introductory remarks are from that vantage point. They set up a list of, as he characterized them, “Principles of Adult Behavior” that he had first drafted half a lifetime earlier, when he hit the then overly mysticised age of 30. Took me a hell of a lot longer to get my brain lined up with all this (I started out with some damned screwed up ideas about what life is about — had a lot of unlearning to do first in order to make room to get my head screwed on properly). But I am comfortable today saying this reasonably well encapsulates a great deal of what I know.
So long, Barlow. Happy trails, and fair winds.
FINALLY, A LITTLE GIFT FOR US ALL…
I didn’t think I would live to 30 either. I was shocked, shocked I
tell you, to find myself on the eve of my 30th birthday, weirdly
alive. In this, I was quite out of step with most of my friends to
that point, more than half of whom were already back in the sweet realm of infinity and love. Chickenshits. If you’re going to
volunteer in the first place, go right into the Special Forces.
In any event, it occurred to me that, past 30, I could no longer
defend my peccadillos on basis of youth. I would have to acquire some minimal sense of responsibility. While I didn’t want to be a grown-up, I wanted at least to act like one in the less toxic and stultifying sense of the term.
So, I sat down around 2 am on October 3, 1977 and I drew up this list of behavioral goals that I hoped might assist in this process. Now, thirty years later, I can claim some mixed success. Where I’ve failed, I’m still working on it. I give these to you so that you can provide me with encouragement in becoming the person I want to be.
And maybe, though they are very personally targeted, they may even be of some little guidance to you.
Anyway, this is what I wrote that night:
PRINCIPLES OF ADULT BEHAVIOR
1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth:
Assign responsibility, never blame.
Say nothing behind another’s back you’d be unwilling to say,
in exactly the same tone and language, to his face.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble
than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you yourself can deliver.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than whom is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Do not
endanger it frivolously. And never endanger the life of another.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason.
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission
and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Never let your errors pass without admission.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
I don’t expect the perfect attainment of these principles. However, I post them as a standard for my conduct as an adult. Should any of my friends or colleagues catch me violating any one of them, bust me.
October 3, 1977
Hold me to these please.
And thank you so much for all the love you’ve given me, despite all of my efforts to resist it.
May the Good Light shine on you,
The Ancient Barlow
John Perry Barlow, Peripheral Visionary
Co-Founder & Vice Chairman, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Berkman Fellow, Harvard Law School
It’s worth noting, as an aside, that my obsession with music dovetailed nicely with my co-occurring fascination with radio. Once again, the happy accident of growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s and ’60s exposed me to some of the most wonderful stations and air talent in the history of broadcasting. I’ll return to this later, because the unique and intersecting subcultures of broadcasting are another area where I was privileged to enjoy several decades of involvement that enriched me in ways beyond my wildest adolescent flights of fantasy. But, for the moment, let’s stay focused on the music, the musicians, and the scene in which it flourished.
As I touched on in Part I, music can play many roles for those open to it. Several approaches seem most suited to stimulate and challenge the intellect, be that through political and literary lyric themes, or the complex constructions of much modern jazz, classical compositions and yes, even some improvisational rock explorations.
Other music best serves to inspire emotional response of various sorts. That may be the lush and juicy love songs that serve as the sound track to so many romantic explorations, the exhilarating party themes that get rooms full of people on their feet dancing, the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes wry life stories rolled out in much blues and country, the pride and inspiration engendered by anthemic declarations or cherished cultural heritage music (be it Celtic, African High Life, sea chanteys, gamelan music, or any of a hundred other “outside the commercial mainstream” genres that each hold their own unique truth), or the transcendence of liturgical compositions and hymns.
Of course, there’s plenty of intersection, overlap, and multi-function stuff in play as well.
I’m just scratching the surface here; my point is that music can, and often does, play a significant role in what defines us as humans.
The place and time in which I began my transformation from childhood toward adulthood positioned me perfectly to satisfy my longing to get closer to that special space.
I was so young; in some ways I still could not know what I didn’t know, but I was acutely aware of my lack of specific skills. However, the ceremony requires more than the shaman to work its magick. And I was able to find a toehold as San Francisco (for reasons beyond the scope of our current discussion) made its transition from one of the country’s premier jazz towns to the epicenter of a massive existential pivot in the shape and scope of rock music and its place in the broader cultural context.
My first “job” in the music business? I figured out that I could hang out around the corner on Cole Street, outside the stage door of the Straight Theater on the afternoon of a show, help load in band equipment from vans and trucks to the stage, and earn myself “free admission” to that night’s concert.
It was a small thing, but proved to be my foot in the door. That led to a semi-paying regular gig for a few weeks taking care of the dressing room for actors in an experimental play the theater mounted for a month or two.
A couple things happened as a result of this. First, I had the opportunity to be present, as “staff,” not just “audience,” at several events that eventually took on semi-legendary status in certain circles.
One such that comes to mind was the night I found myself “peaking” in the balcony when Neal Cassady joined the Grateful Dead for an extemporaneous stream of consciousness ramble while the band vamped behind him. Frankly, in my — ahem — altered condition, Neal’s exposition seemed to go on for hours, or perhaps months. I gather (based at least in part on this recorded fragment) that the objective elapsed time was somewhere around 20 or 30 minutes. So, that was a thing that happened.
Another was the night we hosted the American premiere of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour film. The band had donated the loan of a print which was flown in from England for screening to benefit striking air talent and engineers at KMPX, the precursor to the legendary KSAN, and radio giant Tom Donahue’s initial foray into programming what came to be known as “underground radio” on the then neglected FM band of the broadcast dial.
In retrospect, a number of exceptionally unusual things happened in and around the Straight. But, perhaps equally important for me, my face became a “known individual” to a number of crew and musicians around town.
That made the transition pretty smooth when I fell in with the cleaning crew over at the Family Dog’s Avalon Ballroom. It had soon become clear, even to a rank rookie like me, that the Straight (interesting as the scene might be) was never going to become a stable venue, so employment prospects were shaky at best. At that point, the Avalon and the Fillmore Auditorium, Bill Graham’s venue, pretty much dominated the scene.
Of course, not much was required to get by in those days. Survival consisted of a few folks getting together and figuring out how to hustle up sixty or seventy bucks a month to rent a flat, scraping together enough food to keep going, and managing one way or another (often by “making little ones out of big ones” and engaging in a little retail activity) to keep the flow going in order to maintain our heads.
So, once again, my initial “foot in the door” at the Avalon consisted of working for free. The paid cleanup crew enjoyed the option of placing folks on the guest list (Chet was always pretty damned loose with the guest list; there were reasons which I expect we’ll discuss in the fullness of time) and I became a regular “guest” in exchange for being a reliable extra pair of hands after the show when it was time to sweep and mop.
That led to a “promotion” up to full membership on the paid cleaning crew, as more senior swampers either moved up or moved on. Hanging on to the edges as “staff”, I was able to stay with the Family Dog during the transition period after the Avalon closed and before Chet acquired the old Beach Pavilion venue out on the Great Highway. During that interregnum the Dog mostly subsisted on mail order poster sales, along with a modicum of band management and one-off gigs in various venues. But I was able to stick with the circus and ride the momentum out to the beach, where it became an “all hands on deck” effort, involving probably a couple dozen of us, maybe more, as paid staff and well over a hundred volunteers who pitched in to get the hall up and running while earning themselves some future show passes.
I’ll fill out more of that part of the story in the next installment.
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.