I returned from hitch-hiking in Europe in a very manic state and after an unsuccessful attempt to crawl back into the psychedelic poster business, I went to work again on the San Francisco waterfront and lived at my parent’s apartment in North Beach. Staying with my parents after all the unhappy experiences I’d been through was problematic so when my brother Jim suggested that it would be better if I moved out, I had to admit he was right.
I’d become friendly with two ship’s clerks on the front, Jim Mulligan and Bill Bechtold and we decided to look for a rental property together. Bechtold and Mulligan were both intellectual and witty. That they were part of the hippy generation was secondary to their educational grounding. I recall no hip jargon from either of them. In the summer of 1968 my parents took a trip to England to visit my sister Nell and her family and by the time they returned I had moved out. Bechtold, Mulligan and I rented a house on Medway Road in San Anselmo.
My friendship with these two guys was actually a factor in the improvement of my mental health. They were both college educated and regularly discussed literature which made a change to the usual chatter with my hippy friends.
Mulligan was of medium height with longish hair and a moustache. He was a very friendly person with a New York accent who always seemed to look on the bright side of things. Bill Bechtold was very tall with cropped blond hair and a small moustache. I never heard him utter a sloppy sentence. Not quite as optimistic as Mulligan, he spoke beautifully and with great wit. He had little patience with self-pity and his description of any indulgence of it was: “to bemoan and lament.” When hippies descended on our house, decorating the kitchen with macrobiotic food he suggested we get a grain elevator.
One subject that came up regularly between Mulligan and Bechtold was the anti-intellectual attitudes of many of the ship’s clerks on the waterfront. Book reading was frowned upon during down-time on a pier. Bill told us that as he turned up for work one day the head clerk said to him: ‘There’s no reading allowed.’ “I think he suspected I could,” said Bill.
In addition to Mulligan and Bechtold, we were joined in the house by a young woman named Geri and her boyfriend. The boyfriend was a manual labourer who would go to work on building sites during the day. Geri worked in an office and her boyfriend was a pretty heavy boozer, which wasn’t at odds with the lifestyle of Bechtold and Mulligan. In fact there was a lot of drinking at the house on Medway Road and practically everybody smoked cigarettes. One of Mulligan’s favourite observations was to describe his craving for a cigarette as ‘oral gratification.’ Weed was also smoked in the house though not by me as I stuck to my doctor’s advice and abstained. Friends of Mulligan from back east began appearing and crashing on the sofa and as time passed our house gradually became a crash pad.
Bechtold was curious about my breakdown because he could see no obvious signs of it in my demeanour. I guess this indicated that my mental state was improving but I was still socially inept and a bit of a charlatan in group activities. I felt I was pretending to engage with other people rather than actually doing so. Again the Jimi Hendrix song I Don’t Live Today described the way I felt.
There was a house in Strawberry where I had spent a lot of time hanging out in 1967. It was owned by a very nice middle aged woman who was divorced, had two children and smoked a lot of weed. There were always young people hanging around her place and I had first met her during that summer before I flipped out. She was a folk singer under contract to Frank Werber who managed the Kingston Trio. For some reason Bechtold joined me on a visit one time and she talked about the Beatles in the reverential way that many of us did. I wasn’t alone in deifying the four Liverpudlians and I think it was this attitude which got on Bechtold’s nerves for he told me later that he found my friend to be naive and shallow. The Beatles were never discussed by either Mulligan or Bechtold. And yet the fab four held a magical place in my soul ever since I first encountered them in 1964.
I was a junior at Tam High when I first heard I Want To Hold Your Hand on the radio then went with a few friends to watch their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and that did it. I came away knowing all four of them by name and for the next year and a half of high school and beyond their music continued to get better and better. It was in December, 1965 that they released their first concept album Rubber Soul and it was a sign that these four had not run out of steam but were still creating inventive music that everybody seemed to love. So I definitely idolised John, Paul, George and Ringo and knew all their songs by heart. I guess that many of my peers did as well. Of course idolising anyone is a bit ridiculous and I’m sure this was the point Bechtold was making.
I had brought my record player and several LPs with me to the house on Medway Road. My relationship with recorded popular music was to continue for many years to come. Pop music had been a good friend to me through good times and bad but the heady sounds of 1967 which included the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, had given way to new sounds. Several of the bands I had known from working at the Fillmore were now becoming big like Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and the Grateful Dead. While in London earlier in the year I stayed a good deal of the time at my friend Jo Bergman’s flat in Chelsea. Jo worked for Mick Jagger and the flat she was staying in actually belonged to Marianne Faithful. Most of the records we listened to there were acetates, pre-release copies. I remember hearing an acetate of Lady Madonna by the Beatles and Bob Dylan’s bootleg tapes with The Band. When Jo brought home an acetate of the Stones’ new disc Jumpin’ Jack Flash, one of her American friends said that if they released this now in the states it would go into the top 10. Well it came out just about the time I moved into the house on Medway Road and did indeed climb to number 3 in the American charts. I had, by this time, lost much of my interest in the Stones and this record did nothing to restore my enthusiasm. It had a catchy riff but absolutely no soul and I found the lyrics irritating.
We had a black and white television set which sat in the living room and was watched by all in the evenings. Having been deprived of a TV throughout the 1950s, the Myers family finally got one when we moved to our house on Catalpa in 1962. But I never really got into the habit of watching it. I found the commercials annoying. I’d be viewing an old Humphrey Bogart movie only to find it interrupted every few minutes by some blowhard in a suit sitting on a stepladder telling you about his used car dealership on the Bayshore Freeway. It was a system of rewards and punishments with the commercials being the latter.
One programme we watched at Medway Road was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. By 1968 the hippy jargon of the previous year had made its way into the mainstream media and this programme’s title was a play on Be-In, Love-In, Sit-In, etc. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were a pair of funny slick nightclub comedians and their writers worked in many acknowledgements of the hippy phenomenon without alienating its audience. The show consisted of very old fashioned physical gags and up to the minute observations about the drug culture which had spread across the nation like wildfire. Laugh-In made jokes about the presidential election and the war in Vietnam and some of it was pretty left-leaning. The look of the show was a blend of the Beach Party movies and psychedelic poster art and two performers who made me laugh a lot were Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn. The only presidential candidate to appear on Laugh-In was Richard Nixon who was filmed saying: “Sock it to me?”
Laugh-In ran on the NBC network while over on CBS there was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Tommy and Dickie Smothers were known to us in the Myers family because we had a few of their LPs from the early 1960s. Their act was very funny and highly original. The two siblings were folk musicians whose performance was constantly interrupted by amusing arguments. The truly funny element was Tommy Smothers reverting to his childhood self with all the stammering inarticulate verbiage that kids actually come out with. His classic line was “Mom always liked you best!”
The Smothers discs we had listened to were all recorded in San Francisco nightclubs but now they were big stars on prime time television and their show was every bit as funny as Laugh-In but with a bit more in the way of left wing politics. Counter culture attitudes and anti-war sentiments were prominent in every programme and the brothers were in a constant battle with CBS executives over the content of their shows. When Joan Baez appeared as a guest, she dedicated the song she sang to her then husband David Harris, who was going to prison for refusing to be drafted. The network allowed her dedication to him and the fact he was going to prison but cut out the reason why.
Bill Bechtold had his draft status adjusted to 1A while we were living in San Anselmo and he too was considering going to prison. He regularly said that jail held no great horrors for him as it would provide him with lots of reading time. I had only spent one night in San Rafael jail in 1966 and hated it so completely that I had no such inclinations. But then by that time I had been disqualified for military service and was 4F.
It was on the Smothers Brothers show that I first saw Glen Campbell singing Gentle On My Mind, a song written by banjo playing John Hartford. It was my first indicator that country music was the direction the American record business was headed.
A performing artist I’d never heard of came to my attention through the rantings of Jim Mulligan. His hatred for the singer/songwriter/poet Rod McKuen was so intense that he could prattle on about him for hours. I soon learned that McKuen had written the song When I Was Seventeen for Frank Sinatra as well as many others. Mulligan would become very animated, expressing his abhorrence of McKuen’s passion for self pity and melancholy. Though totally unknown to me, McKuen was, by 1968, a true showbiz phenomenon, selling millions of records and filling out concert venues with hordes of devoted fans. Who knew? Not me obviously. His singing voice was gravelly and he said that he sounded like he gargled with Dutch Cleanser.
McKuen was later interviewed by Nora Ephron for Esquire magazine in a piece which featured both him and Erich Segal, the author of Love Story. Ms Ephron did a job on both these two and titled it Mush. She described them as having the habit of repeating compliments others have paid them, and doing it in a manner that is so blatant it almost seemed ingenuous. McKuen’s poetry she found to be “superficial, platitudinous and frequently silly.” She objected to his use of adjectives as nouns: Listen To The Warm, Caught In The Quiet, etc, and her words clearly stung the loner poet as when interviewed by film critic Roger Ebert, he described Ephron as someone who tells lies. “Don’t get me wrong,” he quickly backtracked. “I don’t hate her. I mean, I don’t hate anybody. In a way, I wish I could hate a little more. It would make me more of a rounded personality.” Roger Ebert then found himself agreeing with Nora Ephron’s description of McKuen’s speech patterns, starting with the specific, edging out to the general, back-tracking to tone down any language which might offend and concluding with an apology which seemed self-critical but was really self-praise.
Where Mulligan had done all his listening to Rod McKuen I have no idea. We listened to the Beatles in the house and many other LPs like Blood, Sweat and Tears but nothing by McKuen. The Beatles released the single Hey Jude which went straight to number one. Next came The White Album which was a mixed bag, a double LP and unlike Sgt Pepper where all the songs were instantly wonderful, some of it took a bit of getting used to. I enjoyed Back in the U.S.S.R. with its witty pastiche of the Beach Boys and several of the songs like Blackbird but overall it didn’t coalesce as their previous albums had. Some of the numbers had an ugly quality.
One night on the television I saw an NBC special featuring Elvis Presley. Before I was a Beatles fan, I had been a nine year old Presley fan while at Homestead School in the 1950s. But Presley had moved away from the kind of rock and roll records I had collected as a kid and by 1968 he had a back catalogue of movies behind him with titles like Girls! Girls! Girls! and Harum Scarum. When The Beatles met him the first time they asked why he had stopped making the kind of records which had inspired them and he said he was too busy with his movie schedule.
So I watched with rapt interest what came to be known as the Elvis Comeback Special which featured him performing to a small studio audience. Dressed in black leather he sang many of his old numbers. This programme was not at all schmaltzy. It had a raw quality which stood in stark contrast to all of those bland, formulaic movies with forgettable titles. It was a ratings success.
I also saw people I knew from the Fillmore on the TV like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Despite my voting for Hube the Cube, Richard Nixon was elected president. The year 1968 was drawing to a close and I had been saving my money for the trip to England the following year but my departure would be delayed by a few unexpected surprises.
to be continued – 1969: the final year of the sixties