The Dying Days of 1968

While growing up in Mill Valley, my experience of record shops was limited to Village Music which was small and located in the Sequoia Theatre building on Throckmorton.  In the early 1960s Sara Wilcox who owned and operated it moved up to a more modern unit on East Blithedale.  I had known Sara since I was in the third grade and she would always play whatever my pal Glen Pritzker and I ever wanted to hear.  Party Doll by Buddy Knox?  Sure thing.  Wake Up Little Susie by the Everly Brothers? Of course you can.

   But in 1968 when I was living in San Francisco, I discovered a new, less personal kind of record store.  It stood at the corner of Bay and Columbus and it was called Tower Records.  I had never encountered a store like this before.  It was big and more like a supermarket than a record shop.  It was impersonal, not at all like buying records from Sara.  The record covers were all shrink wrapped in cellophane which was never the case at Village Music.  I would spend a lot of time leafing through the bins.  I had to really want an album before making a purchase.  

   What prompted me to buy Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison I don’t remember but I was fascinated enough to get it and once I had, I listened to it a lot.  Something about him playing to a truly captive audience fascinated me.  Cash seemed to have cultivated a kind of outlaw image which appealed to the convicts.  When he sang: “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” they cheered, whooped and hollered.

   Of course I knew Johnny Cash’s records from the 1950’s like I Walk The Line and Ring of Fire but I can’t say that I had followed his career at all and always thought he sang a bit flat.  And that strange quality in his voice was all there on the Folsom Prison disc but something about this record was utterly compelling and I listened to it again and again.  The first song was Folsom Prison Blues which I had never heard before even though Cash had first recorded it in 1955.

   During my senior year at Tam High, the male students all went on an expedition to the prison at San Quentin which was a very sobering experience.  Those young women who were also seniors were not allowed to go on this trip.  We were instructed not to look at or talk to any of the inmates and the only interaction we had was with a prisoner who was working in the library.  We were heckled by a crowd of convicts as we walked through the dining hall.  It was a bit alarming to troop single file through the gas chamber which was much smaller than I had expected.  On the bus back to Mill Valley there wasn’t a lot of casual banter.  I guess it was the memory of this trip which made Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison such a compelling disc to listen to.  Those guys who made up his audience were all doing serious time and cannot have been easy to perform for.  Johnny Cash, however, had some kind of special appeal to these men behind bars.

   His band was very good and included Carl Perkins on lead guitar and his wife June Carter on vocals.  Live albums were becoming popular but this LP had an extra layer of drama attached.

   Another disc I bought at Tower Records was Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix which featured the haunting Voodoo Chile.  I had seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience perform twice on their first trip to San Francisco in 1967.  Once at the Fillmore Auditorium and again one afternoon in Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle where they performed on the back of a flat bed truck.  

   By late 1968 I had moved from the city and was living in a shared house on Medway Road in San Anselmo with two fellow ship’s clerks, Jim Mulligan and Bill Bechtold.  Working on the San Francisco waterfront was a bit of a commute from northern Marin.  I’d catch a Greyhound bus on Central Avenue and ride it all the way to the Ferry Building in time to get to the hiring hall.  I was saving money for my trip to London so I worked a lot.

   On the front I occasionally saw my old school friend Steve who, looking sober and alert seemed to be keeping on the straight and narrow with his drug problem.  Steve had an amphetamine addiction but had been on the wagon for quite some time now.  Someone I didn’t know but saw a lot of when I worked on the north side was the long haired fork lift driver known as the Greek.  He was befriended by my housemate Jim Mulligan who invited him to come up to Medway Road for New Year’s Eve.

   Several of Mulligan’s buddies from New York began appearing and sleeping on the sofa.  One was a guy a bit older than me and for some reason he and I found ourselves in Mill Valley early one evening and decided to hitchhike back to San Anselmo.  It was getting dark as we stood by the gas station at the junction of East Blithedale and Camino Alto with our thumbs out.  A middle aged woman with a little boy in the back seat stopped for us and we got in.  “Have you eaten?” she asked in an unnaturally urgent tone.  “You must eat.  I insist.”  She then turned left on Lomita and drove to her house in Alto where we got out and went inside.  The kid disappeared pretty quick and she gave us each a bottle of beer.  As she chatted with the other guy, I sipped my beer and began to feel very uncomfortable.  She seemed to be making sexual advances to the pair of us.  I couldn’t stop thinking of the possibility that an irate husband might suddenly appear.  My friend had no such worries and was responding to her friendly flirtatious chatter.  I finished my beer, told them both that I had to get back to San Anselmo and set off leaving my friend there.  I got two lifts north and was home by 9pm.

   My friend returned to the house on Medway the next day with tales of the night he spent with the woman and the fact that she had a movie projector to watch porno films on.  As I recall he made repeat visits to her house in Alto.

   A movie which I had to see was Bullitt starring Steve McQueen.  Shot in San Francisco, this picture had made the news during the filming and I knew a ship’s clerk on the front who had a small part in it as a police officer.  Steve McQueen was very cool.  I first saw him in The Blob at the Saturday matinee but he hadn’t made much of an impression in that.  The first time he impressed me was in Never So Few which my father Blackie took me to see at the Sequoia.  He drove Frank Sinatra’s jeep and a combination of his expert athleticism and his nonchalant manner made him very watchable.  He also resembled my future brother-in-law Lonnie Thornton who was living with my sister Katie in the city.  The big selling point of Bullitt was the car chase with McQueen driving a Ford Mustang.

   My next purchase from Tower Records was Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones.  I found it a bit of a mixed bag.  Having loved a few of the Stones’ LPs like Aftermath and Between The Buttons, some of the songs on this album appealed to me and others not at all.  I was indifferent to Sympathy For The Devil and thought Street Fighting Man to be reminiscent of Jumping Jack Flash which I hadn’t liked at all.  The only track I really enjoyed was Stray Cat Blues which was odd considering how much of a fan I had been.

   The crash pad dimension of our house intensified in the dying days of 1968.  A lot of hippies who neither Mulligan nor Bechtold actually knew began staying over and my indifference to the song Sympathy For The Devil transformed into hatred as this one long haired guy played it over and over, dancing around the living room to it.  One evening the house was so crowded with strangers that I retreated to my bedroom.  I was soon joined by Bechtold, Mulligan and Geri.  We all wondered who these people were and how we could get rid of them.

   One guy who turned up was a long haired bearded fellow who ate macrobiotic food and soon commandeered our kitchen with sacks of different types of grain.  This was when Bill Bechtold made his joke about getting a grain elevator installed.  This guy used to do his karate exercises out on our front lawn and he had a pretty girl friend with long dark hair.  One day on the waterfront I didn’t get a job at the hiring hall so took the Greyhound bus back to San Anselmo where I arrived about 10am.  As I walked in the door I could smell bacon cooking and entering the kitchen I saw the macrobiotic guy’s girl friend frying the bacon.  She spun around in a state of panic and said: “Please don’t tell him!”

   One regular visitor to the house was a very tall thin caucasian guy with medium length dark hair.  He lived in San Rafael, was soft spoken and seemed friendly.  He didn’t have any regular attachment to anyone living there so I came to the conclusion that he was a drug dealer and nothing in the chats I had with him made me think differently.  Presumably he’d come around to our house to provide somebody with some grass or something stronger.  It was after my doctor told me that I could no longer smoke weed that I began hearing about cocaine from my friends.

   For me the magic of the summer of love had become a distant memory perceived through the thick fog of depression and heavy medication.  Practically every day in the Chronicle would be news of yet another runaway kid found dead from an overdose in a doorway in the Haight Ashbury district.  News from the Vietnam war was equally grim and the turmoil of anti-Vietnam war protests on US campuses was like another war altogether.

   At San Francisco State College a strike was organised by the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front to establish an ethnic studies department at the college.  Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California at this time, expressed his impatience with those running the college and sometime in November Robert Smith resigned as president of SF State and was replaced by S.I. Hayakawa, a professor of semantics.

   I had encountered Mr Hayakawa many times while working at the Bus Depot in my high school years.  A short friendly man of Japanese descent, he and his family lived in Mill Valley up in Blithedale Canyon I believe.  I also had known his son Alan who was among the cast of The Crucible which was directed by Dan Caldwell at Tam High.  For some reason I expected Mr Hayakawa to be politically left of centre but he quickly demonstrated that he was very hardline against the strikers.  The violence on SF State campus escalated alarmingly.  

   I would read reports of the confrontations between student strikers and police at SF State in the Chronicle on the bus into the city then see it on the TV news in the evening.  The SF Police Tactical squad were regularly on the campus and photos of them in their round helmets regularly appeared as they battled and arrested the striking students and faculty members.

   As Christmas approached my parents Blackie and Beth gave up the apartment in North Beach and moved back to their house on Catalpa in Mill Valley.  I spent Christmas there with them but went back to San Anselmo soon after.

   There seemed to be a special significance to the coming of 1969 probably because of the common usage of ’69’ to denote oral sexual intercourse.  However it was another new year’s eve with all the promise of exciting possibilities.  Our house on Medway Road was full of social traffic as the evening began.  There wasn’t a party there but someone in the neighbourhood was having one which all of us were welcome to attend.  Jim Mulligan had invited the Greek, the long haired forklift driver from the waterfront and he brought his guitar with him.  He played it beautifully.  What I knew about the Greek was that he had been in the marine corps and served in Vietnam.  I had seen him driving his forklift truck on the front many times.  His manner on arrival that evening was friendly and gentle.  He was of medium height with a muscular build and had fairly long dark hair which was curly.  He lit a joint and sat in the living room with his guitar which he began playing.  Mulligan and I were enjoying his music.  At about the same time our housemate Geri’s rather boozy boyfriend was trying to make a long distance phone call in the kitchen.  He asked in a slightly aggressive manner for the Greek to keep the noise down.  I think our guest did try to play quietly but he didn’t stop.  Geri’s boyfriend, who was already drunk by 9pm kept shouting from the other room to keep the noise down but the Greek kept on playing.  Finally the drunken boyfriend snapped, ran into the living room and lunged at the Greek.  What then occurred happened very quickly.  Our guest dropped the guitar and threw his right hand out towards the attacking boyfriend who went flying backwards onto the kitchen floor.  That was all I saw and I have no idea what the Greek did.  The drunk boyfriend was now lying on his back, unconscious, on the kitchen floor.

   “Oh man,” said our guest.  “What a drag.  I didn’t want that to happen.”  He quickly picked up his guitar and left our house.  The boyfriend regained consciousness soon after and another visitor came in through the back door, the drug dealer from San Rafael who had someone behind him.  It took me a moment to recognise my school friend Steve from the waterfront as he looked absolutely terrible.  He hadn’t shaved, his hair looked longer and greasy, his eyes were wild and the clothes he wore looked dirty.  The poor soul had clearly fallen off the wagon.

   It was not a joyous new year’s eve for me.  The drama of the Greek knocking out our drunken housemate and the sight of Steve in a clearly drugged up state put a damper on any positive feelings I had as the clock struck midnight and it became 1969.

To be continued: a few delayed departures.

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Author: milleravenuemusings

I am a semi-retired actor, singer and graphic designer who once designed posters for Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in the late 1960s.

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