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Brief Encounters #4

For several years in the eighties I hosted a radio show in Toronto: Some Other Stuff – CKLN FM 88.1 On The Far Left of Your Radio Band. Every Thursday from ten until Midnight. Then, as now, my tendency was to create shows with a specific subject matter: my band of favourites. Or if there was someone of consequence in town an interview show featuring their music. Some Other Stuff was followed by The Dead Hour which featured only live concerts, mostly bootleg, of the Grateful Dead.

In the summer of 1967
Bill Graham brought two San Francisco bands to Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre. The event, titled ‘The San Francisco Scene’ featured the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane playing eight performances at this cultural mecca, home to ballet and opera. Bill Graham had hired me as the photographer to cover one of the shows.

These two occasions are my only personal connection to the Grateful Dead. And I should mention that the three CD + DVD package [Rhino R2 536028] to be discussed later will raise my Dead collection to five CDs, adding “Sunshine Daydream” to “Working Man’s Dead” and “American Beauty”. A tenuous thread at best.

The story continues in 1971, the time frame determined by the publishing date of Charles Mingus’ book “Beneath the Underdog”, a publisher’s proof-copy of which I’m carrying in my bag; to be reviewed for the upcoming October issue of Coda Magazine [see End Notes]. It’s early May, close to my 33rd birthday, the countryside, as we head north from Toronto, not yet completely awake. Straight up Highway 400 toward Sudbury, a barren black-rocked landscape with an endless sea of dead tree stumps that some doubters thought to be where the first pictures of the moon landing were taken. Faked. But that’s not it, it’s my first encounter with blackflies that remain lodged there in memory.


One of my character flaws – among the many – is the need to get to a destination, no deviation from the planned course, a bit like the impatient kid in the back seat asking “are we there yet?” Which in this case tends to lean toward the ridiculous as there is no particular planned conclusion to this journey, the impulse being to go as far as possible, to the very edge, to eventually arrive at Long Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island then down south to see how much of the beat generation remains in California. On the road daydreaming of Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg…

On April 2nd, 1958 Herb Caen in an article for the San Francisco Chronicle coined the word beatnik, to which an irritated Allen Ginsberg, who deplored “the foul word beatnik”, responded in the New York Times: “If beatniks and not illuminated Beat poets overrun this country, they will have been created not by Kerouac but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man.”

For me though, these mythological years are what has lead me to be a hippie enjoying life on the open road, to even, at this late date, search out their California haunts, the leftovers of legend: San Francisco’s Vesuvio and City Lights bookstore, Monterey and Carmel (both of which have become tourist traps and gated communities), the magnificence of Big Sur and the No Name bar in Sausalito. Celebrating this world from my youth.

There had been very little contact with the legendary Hell’s Angels on this journey, the only time back in Winnipeg, a city with no room at the inn for the mixed-race family of a long-haired freak in a funky foreign station wagon. It’s apparent we’re in the wrong town, the name of the local paper – The Winnipeg Free Press, a misnomer.

Our saviours back then in ‘71, as we stand there tired and dejected on the sidewalk, are two bikers pulling their magnificent Harleys – their exhaust notes throbbing in the grumbling sort of way they do – alongside us, asking what’s up. Fellow outcasts, of a different ilk for sure, although looking surprisingly similar with their beards, bandanas and strung beads, just a little heftier, leather clad with the distinctive death’s head insignia announcing their identity. “Follow us man” – way out to the outskirts of town, west on Portage Avenue, a roadside motel with a dozen or more hogs lined up in a row. Mick’s voice is belting out “Gimme Shelter” clear through the window of the reception lobby. The bikers and their tattooed brides crowd around us, sympathetic, offering a welcoming stubby of ice-cold Labatt Blue, burgers and medicinal sustenance. Up half the night we were, having a whale of a time, sharing our goodies, organic and otherwise.

Thirty-five miles north of San Francisco and here they are again, the heroic outlaws of our time – enemy of the rich, friend to the poor – blocking off the high street in Petaluma, a town known as the Egg Capital of the World and home of the World Wrist-Wrestling Championships. Strolling up the halted row of vehicles they come, systematically deciding who’s to continue, occasionally releasing a vehicle from the queue; a pick-up truck, a rusty old jeep, a school bus – the Cadillacs held in place. He pops his head in our front window – “Hey man what’s happenin’” – his tobacco stained teeth grinning as he waves us out of the line-up to continue our journey south.

Never trust a hippy that’s for sure, the drugs and their need for exaggerated romance often evolved as boastful lies, in keeping with the imaginary world they mostly occupied. Lazy good for nothing costumed youth. “Ask for my friend Rainbow Trout” – or some such fanciful name – “he hangs out at the No Name Bar; they’ll all know him”, one of the hippies back in Long Beach confides. It’s crowded at three in the afternoon, sparse light masking the locals’ identities, none of whom has heard of Mister Trout in this bastion of hipness, where in the past Kerouac and Ginsberg had hung out, played chess, read poetry and listened to the bebop musings of Bird and Diz.

Our travelling companions, captured on cassette tape and housed in a shoe box resting on the passenger-side floor, are mostly the jazz avant garde plus the hip music of the Grateful Dead (American Beauty) and Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow). They’re not here playing at the Fillmore in the beginning summer of 1971, that’s been closed for a couple of years, the psychedelic light shows with projectors catching the mixture of sloshing-about coloured liquid enhanced by a tab of Sunshine are ended, seen now only as lava lamps, invented ironically by an Englishman from Poole in Dorset, and found in the hipster souvenir shops around the deteriorated Haight Ashbury district. All over but the tourism. Not much is left from the summer of love when 20,000 hippies gathered in Golden Gate Park all enamoured by the idealism of the Age of Aquarius embodied by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane. You can still see tie-dyed tee-shirts, lost teeny boppers dressed in flamboyant clothes with flowers adorning their wild unkempt hair; groups of shaven-headed Hare Krishnas, beads and bright orange robes, jinglebelling their mantras.

1972: More than a year has passed when the Dead arrive at the Old Renaissance Faire Grounds in Veneta, Oregon to play a benefit concert for the Springfield Creamery, a dairy owned by Ken Kesey’s brother and his wife. Merry Pranksters Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs are the emcees, and the opening band is New Riders of the Purple Sage. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzxT8OE3284.

Grateful Dead

Casting back to this earlier time in ones life, seeking memories, becomes easier when thinking of forty years ago, clearer than what happened last weekend down at the pub, aging playing tricks, altering time. The same with pleasures. What was once of great importance now has little significance, only the joyful outrageous moments worth remembering. So from back there, apart from the music itself, specific occasions, gatherings, the theatrics of the time, it was the long hair, beads, incense, Indian shirts embedded with tiny mirrors, flair-bottom pants, sandals said to be held together with Buffalo dung, Ghandi round metal-framed spectacles, hand-made-hash pipes, and not to forget the doors of perception opened by an amazing variety of drugs. Even the names of the bands reflecting the era: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Alice Cooper, Judas Priest… Some fragments still hang about, flittering around the edges.

Here I go, settling in to my ergonomically designed chair complete with adjustable armrests, firing up a doobie and strolling nonchalantly through the computer screen to be among the 20,000 Deadheads filling the fair grounds, my head flooded with longing for those long-ago times. Ready for a sunshine daydream.

Constructing the stage has never been a part of my personal experience, but that’s how it all begins, the camaraderie instantaneous, the mingling immediate, their children joining in, running about, joyfully hollering amid the rhythmic whack of hammers, the sawing. Out of sight, another detail, continuous paranoid messages from Action Central, almost to the level of panic, an ensuing water crisis, where is the tent for lost children – keep calm back there – a bizarre comedic tragedy, as though these invisible informants have been joined by the Furry Freak Brothers. And then fifteen minutes in there they are up on the stage with the perfect opener – Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”…

Four camera men are taking care of this well produced film, each wielding a 16mm camera, enough to keep an eye on the band, capturing the internal communication evidenced by knowing glances, abundant smiles reflecting this joyful occasion. And flitting around the crowd, relishing the writhing naked bronze bodies taking advantage of the 104 degree weather, not a fatty in sight. It’s suggested by an off-camera voice that the band should change their name to the Sunstroke Serenaders. How many times do I see us there, bushy haired hippies, Gerry Garcia looking suspiciously like me old mate Topper. We are not there of course, my memories are evoked from past festivals in Ann Arbor and Newport, Varsity Arena in Toronto, Moers in Germany, Bracknell in England and Goddard College in Vermont for the first Alternative Media Conference in 1970; the similarities causing tears of nostalgia to well up.

There are numerous photographic gems illustrating the feeling that abounds: a dog licking clean the ice cream covered face of a defenceless nappy’d child, a naked stoner perched precariously atop a pole oblivious to danger, always the gyrating dancers, a sustained close-up of Jerry Garcia’s Colorsound Wah-Wah pedal, a small hippy child who wanders on stage checking out the band, gazing up into Bob Weir’s eyes, a smile lighting up his face.

The lineup of the Grateful Dead is Jerry Garcia (guitar and vocals), Bob Weir (guitar and vocals), Phil Lesh (bass and vocals), Keith Godchaux (keyboards), Bill Kreutzmann (drums), Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals). They are spectacular, always united, the bass and drums feeding, joining, picking fragments from each other, solidifying, insinuating the portal to the next element.

I’ve waited patiently for “Dark Star” to arrive…

Shall we go,
you and I
While we can?
the transitive nightfall
of diamonds

… arriving with the evening, the darkness squeezing the light from the sun sinking behind the distant foothills, the audience, possibly exhausted this far into the day, no longer writhing about, their faces showing deeper thought, nodding, or stoned beyond. The film-makers have inserted absurdist surreal animated concoctions, psychedelic cartoonish creatures: birds, dogs, snakes, bats, crustaceans… what else? Salvador is here or is that Mister Python? And then Bob Weir segues “Dark Star” into Marty Robbins happy cowboy song – “El Paso”…

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Nighttime would find me in Rose’s Cantina,
Music would play and Felina would whirl.

This wonderful movie ends with two songs: “Sing Me Back Home” with the soaring voice of Donna Jean Godchaux added, lifting the music up, exultant…

Sing me back home a song I used to hear.
Make my old memories come alive.
Sing me away and turn back the year.
Sing me back home before I die

… and “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. Maybe not the “greatest story, but…

It should be revealed that I’ve been led in another direction, to “Grayfolded” [http://www.pfony.com/grayfolded/index.html]. Could it be that I have forgotten or simply did not know that back in 1995 my old musical buddy Johhny O [http://www.pfony.com] had applied his plunderphonic ideology to the Grateful Dead, perpetuated the legend of “Dark Star”, one of the pieces the Dead loved to extend into stories outside of the short-form funky country-rock songs they mostly inhabited, “transforming it and yet keeping a link to the old recording of familiar music”.

Sunshine Daydream:
Film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANF6qanEB7s

End Notes:

beneath the underdog

Charles Mingus • Beneath The Underdog

“In other words I am three. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees in the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there’s an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s being done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t — he goes back inside himself”.

“Which one is real”. 

“They’re all real”.

For those of you that have already wandered into the world of Charles Mingus there is no hope, by now you will have already read this book and added one more part of his life to yours. One more step outside the safety of normality is encompassed. Simply having experienced Mingus in any form — hearing his music on records or in clubs or even seeing him walking in the street — will help in reading this book, for basically these writings, autobiographical in essence, are just another dimension of his expansive/ creative personality.

One of my first reactions was that of indignation; somehow I had expected a jazz musician to write a book “about” jazz. But of course this is a Mingus book and it is not about jazz, it is jazz. That is, believing in the basic premise that jazz is an experience of a man put into some form of music, and then believing that music and poetry can be and are the same form in different media.

Loosely the book represents the world that seems to surround him, how much fantasy and fact are mixed together is hard to know, how much is love, how much hatred is not so easily divided. From the frightened little bow-legged boy living in Watts in the twenties and thirties, to the genius youth cellist (being hounded by a strap-wielding father and a bible-quoting mother) and on into his world of prowess, Mingus allows us into his own special black experience. Sometimes a world of delusion, of pimps, hookers and junkies and sometimes one of great beauty and humour. I know for myself, the Mingus experience does not relate to my life-style, and thus it creates the query of just how much of all this is fantasy. I have never been a child prodigy cellist, never been to a Watts Junior school. Never played with Red Mitchell or Art Tatum, and never had the privilege of being Charlie Parker’s or Fats Navarro’s friend. So maybe none of it is fantasy. Never had such an expansive sex life (balling twenty-odd Mexican virgins in one weekend) or been associated with wealthy west coast pimps of penthouse and Cadillac fame. So maybe some of it is fantasy.

The only thing I know about Mingus is his music and this book is more of his music. It’s sometimes heavy, sometimes frightening and always, as is everything he does, a dynamic, explosive portrayal of his existence.