The Times They Were A’Changin’ part 5
I had plenty of people to contact in Manhattan in September of 1965 but for some reason I decided to wait a week to get in touch with friends and family. Instead, when I got into Manhattan, I checked into the YMCA on 32nd Street, the one made famous years later by the Village People single. I learned quickly about loneliness in the big city.
My room was small and impersonal. Somewhere in the Orient I had purchased a small semi-portable record player and while staying at the Y, I bought myself a copy of the Rolling Stones’ new single Get Off My Cloud along with Hang On Sloopy by the McCoys and the Beatles singing Help!
Most of the young men staying at the Y were gay and came from many different countries: Peru, Iran, Polynesia. In fact I don’t remember any who were actually American. A lot of them worked in the big department stores in Manhattan and would arrive at breakfast immaculately dressed, scented with after shave.
Throughout high school my after shave was English Leather but now in New York I discovered a new scent which was Brut.
As the law in New York allowed people to drink at 18 the novelty of sitting in a bar was seductive and as a short skinny young man I attracted, without meaning to, the attention of a fair few gay men. This did lead to a few awkward moments.
After a week I finally rang up my uncle Harvey who immediately drove over to get me. My father Blackie had two brothers, Harvey and Billy and four sisters: Kathleen, Ethel, Connie and Camille. So I was plugging into a very big family and found myself on a roller coaster ride meeting all my relatives and my grandmother Rose for the first time. “That’s my Johnny,” she shouted as she laid eyes on me. I travelled up to Massachusetts to visit some of them.
Then there were my parents’ close friends, all politically left wing, who lived around New York City. Ethel Ellis, whose late husband Fred had been the political cartoonist for The Daily Worker. Virginia Eggleston was another as was Johnny McCusker who lived in the Village.
The pop music I heard on the east coast was terrific: Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds, 1-2-3 by Len Barry, Let’s Hang On by the Four Seasons and Herb Alpert’s instrumental of A Taste of Honey all burned their way into my brain and stayed lodged forever.
Riding the subway didn’t quite match the impression it had made on me at age two but it was still a novelty. The idea of a subterranean world beneath the sidewalks had haunted my thoughts for all those years. Longing to see it again wasn’t lost on me.
Ruth and Luke Wilson lived with their two boys Mike and Derik in Bethesda, Maryland and I took the train down to stay with them before flying back home from Dulles Airport. It was the very first time I had ever been on an airplane and I was more than a bit conflicted about the experience.
“What if it crashes?” was the question which kept reverberating in my head. This first flight was to Los Angeles where I would then transfer. Ruth and Luke had booked me a window seat but when I arrived, there was a lady sitting in it. Not feeling bold enough to make a fuss I simply sat next to her. The conflict about crashing continued quietly in my head until I came to the conclusion that it was out of my hands and there was nothing I could do about it. That rationalisation has served me well on all future flights.
At LAX I caught a flight up to San Francisco. All the way from Dulles to LA had been incident free but now this plane hit lots of turbulence and I experienced scary banging up and down on the clouds which was alarming in the extreme. The pilot’s soothing explanations kept me calm.
When I did finally return to Mill Valley I learned that something fundamental had changed in the town. Things were very different to how they’d always been and the reason was that most young people were now smoking marijuana.
Earlier, during the summer of my senior year, the Federal Narcotics Bureau had sent an undercover agent into Mill Valley. This guy hung around C’s drive-in and became chummy with those people who were dealing weed. About a week before my graduation they conducted a raid in Mill Valley and Sausalito, arresting many people. Their base of operations was the Fireside Motel just between Tam Valley and Marin City. I was stunned to see a photo of a kid we knew from Sausalito on the front page of the Sunday Chronicle being arrested at the Fireside. What had been a very hush hush underground scene was suddenly front-page news.
I guess that the intention of the raid was to put a stop to the pot smoking which, quite frankly, involved a very small number of people. But the publicity surrounding the raid made marijuana popular instantly.
By the time I returned from my adventures on the Torvanger, Tam High had become a hippy hotbed. All the young men had long hair, all the young women wore serapes and beads and marijuana was everywhere. Madison Avenue couldn’t have done a better job of popularising the evil weed.
A few of my friends had been caught up in the raids but only a few. This cultural change was astonishing to behold. The new Sonny and Cher look was everywhere.
One consequence of my adventures out in the big wide world was a diminution of my confidence socially. Having graduated from high school a little guy with a big mouth I was now much more introverted and kept my hands tucked in my pockets as I walked around town.
The popular music of the day followed me like a ghost. Neil Diamond’s single Solitary Man spoke to my loneliness as did The Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. Bob Dylan’s next hit single was Positively 4th Street which sort of continued the theme of Like A Rolling Stone: a tirade against an individual person who he felt the need to tell off.
A good friend was living on a houseboat in the Larkspur marshes and I would go there to get loaded and listen to records. It was at this location that I heard the first LP by the Lovin’ Spoonful. John Sebastian was terrific and every track on that record was good. I particularly liked his version of Sportin’ Life and Wild About My Lovin.’
I had been reluctant to surrender to the hippy lifestyle while I was in high school but now it seemed to be everywhere I turned. All my friends were getting high and I began going along with it. Every house you’d visit there would be someone rolling a joint and handing it to you.
The Vietnam war was now raging and one thing I wanted to avoid was being drafted so I enrolled for classes at the College of Marin. I don’t remember what I took except for journalism. The college newspaper, The Tower Times, was being edited by Hal Aigner and my old chum Jared Dreyfus so that’s where I gravitated towards.
One of the big cultural sensations at this time was the television series of Batman starring Adam West. Having grown up reading more comic books than anybody should, I knew Bob Kane’s creation well and, apart from the costumes and that searchlight which managed to project the image of a bat onto nothing up in the sky, I didn’t really care for Mr Kane’s style of illustration or his story lines. But this TV show took all that mysterious imagery and made something excellent out of it. And it was funny. Adam West’s Batman was hilarious as he and Robin plodded their way through whatever mystery needed solving and when they came to blows with the bad guys the screen would explode with beautiful comic book illustrations of words like ‘SOCK!’‘POW!’ and ‘CRUNCH!’
Always an imitator of that which impressed me I went to Hal and Jar with the idea of doing a comic strip for The Tower Times entitled ‘Captain Campus.’ I must have drawn a sample strip which they loved and it was in the next edition. So this became my reason for being at the College of Marin…writing and drawing next week’s strip which started off a bit amateur and evolved into something better.
Both Jar and Hal took the job of running the paper seriously and did actually break one proper news story while I was there. There were two brothers who were well known as being very right wing and they produced posters for a Righteous Brothers concert they were putting on somewhere in Marin. The Righteous Brothers were, at this time, a huge attraction with a steady stream of hit records. So Jar and Hal looked into it and discovered that the concert was a total scam. The Righteous Brothers management knew nothing about it at all. I cannot recall what these guys planned to do when their customers discovered they weren’t going to see the Righteous Brothers but I do remember a verbal standoff in the office between them on one side and Hal and Jar on the other.
Jared always took an interest in my creative pursuits and I remember him visiting me at my parents’ house on Catalpa while I was drawing that week’s strip. ‘Captain Campus’ was a bit of nonsense but it turned out to be a very constructive activity for me at a time when I was getting stoned too often.
The drug scene which had spread like a virus began manifesting itself culturally. I remember going to The Trips Festival which was held at the Longshoreman’s Hall in the city. A bit later I went to a packed dance-concert at the Fillmore Auditorium where I was astonished to see relatively old men with extremely long hair and all these people were openly smoking dope. Hell’s Angels were also among their number.
Up on the stage was a band I’d never heard of called The Grateful Dead whose lead guitarist was mesmerising to watch. Running this show was a very serious looking man in his thirties who sported a Frankie Avalon haircut and, though he looked straight as a board, he seemed to mingle with all these long haired hippies with ease.
I remember thinking that if the federal government was serious about containing the drug culture they probably should seal this building off and cart everyone away to a concentration camp.
I began seeing posters for dance concerts featuring the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. One was made up of wavy lettering in the shape of a human head. I liked it and felt that it was the sort of thing that I could do. The artist whose name was at the bottom was Wes Wilson.
I managed to incorporate some of what I’d seen at the Fillmore into my weekly comic strip and before long I did an ad in the paper for a dance at the College of Marin.
I saw from the posters that the dance-concerts at the Fillmore were being produced by Bill Graham so I put together a package of my printed strips and the ad for the dance, wrote a letter about myself and sent it off. About a week later I got a phone call from Bill Graham inviting me over to the Fillmore to see about a job painting the boards at the top of the stairs as you entered the building.
Life was certainly changing.
to be continued: Painting the boards at the Fillmore and finding myself becoming a hippy…