I don’t think you can survive as a human being without some music in your life. I don’t think it’s a hobby or a frill. It’s a necessity. It doesn’t have to be presented by experts and geniuses.
—Barbara Dane, to the author
The year after I pledged my undying devotion to Joan Baez, at the beginning of eighth grade, I was pushed out of Walden’s wondrous nest and forced to grub for my own worms in a public institution, Garfield Junior High School. Most of my Walden classmates were eager to plunge headlong into mainstream teen culture. After all, it was the only way they could rebel against their nonconformist parents and retroactively thumb their noses at a weird school in which Social Studies involved taking field trips to interview the strikers on every picket line in town.
I was in a bind: I longed to fit in, but I had no desire to fly in the direction that the flock seemed to be flapping their wings. While other girls at Garfield wore circle “virgin” pins, I defiantly sported a peace button. (It has been largely lost in the mists of pre-history that the symbol doesn’t really stand for peace, but for “nuclear disarmament;” the three-branched design combines the semaphore signals for N and D.) I wore knee-high boots, denim and colors like olive green and black. I holed up in my room with my Joan Baez and Bob Dylan albums, and tried to avoid what I regarded as the hideously sunny strains streaming from the transistor radios all around me in the outside world. I glued a vibrant red and black bumper sticker for “S.N.C.C.” on my binder. My brother tried to emulate by writing “Snick” on his binder.
Sidebar: S.N.C.C., pronounced “snick” was the initials of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a significant civil rights organization founded in 1960 to organize sit-ins, marches and other forms of protests against racial segregation.. S.N.C.C would later become more militant and black separatist, but initially it was an integrated group that worked closely with other civil rights organizations. End sidebar.
Meanwhile, my turncoat Walden cohorts had defected into a world in which American Girl and Seventeen Magazine acted as arbiters of female adolescent life, laying down the laws for dressing and acting like teenage girls, dictating what our interests should be, and intoning commandments about how to interact with boys. Thou shalt not call boys on the telephone. Thou shalt always listen to boys talk about themselves because that’s what they like, and never talk about yourself because they don’t want to hear it. Teen magazines also promoted that particularly convoluted bit of illogic that probably drove a whole generation of women into therapy: Always say no when boys try to get you to go “all the way,” because they are just testing you and they really don’t want you to and they will therefore respect you and like you more if you don’t. And if you do, you will inevitably contract V.D., get pregnant or both. The threat of AIDS was hardly the first sexually transmitted weapon of mass destruction.
Teen magazines instructed each girl to turn her burgeoning libido away from the boys at hand and direct it towards a narrow range of distant movie and pop stars. Worshiping graven images of Elvis, Frankie, Fabian and Bobby (or Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye) was the religion teenage girls were supposed to practice. Standing at the ready to fan those hormonal flames was an industry of fan magazines, inexpensive 45 RPM records and Top Forty radio stations.
Berkeley was largely a segregated city. Grove Street, which passed within a block of Garfield and cut completely across the city, was the unacknowledged boundary line between the whites who lived in the Berkeley hills and the blacks who lived in the flats. During my childhood, the only African-Americans I ever saw anywhere near my home were garbage collectors and cleaning women. As a youngster I was fascinated and a little terrified by the garbage men: large, silent, mysterious figures wearing dirty overalls, heavy work gloves and caps. Once a week, one of them would trudge up our twenty-five uneven stone stairs, hoist our big metal garbage can onto his back, haul it down to the truck to empty it, carry it back up the steps, and then walk back down to the truck; four trips in all. Sometimes, one would catch me peeking at him from the kitchen door and would tip his cap and give me a smile. I also watched the white-uniformed cleaning women who made their way up our steep street in the mornings to their clients’ houses. In the late afternoon they wearily walked back to the bus stop to wait for the #7 that would ferry them down to Grove Street and their homes. They looked unhappy and tired. There was a black janitor at my elementary school, Mr. Scott or Scotty, who would help children across the street before and after school. He would stand by the crosswalk, subserviently tipping his hat to passing cars.
Some of the first activities of the Civil Rights movement in Berkeley took place in the early Sixties, working to get local stores to integrate their employees by hiring more black employees. Lucky supermarkets was a major target. The Lucky Stores chain was owned by the Mormon Church, and was fairly discriminatory in its hiring practices.
It had been patently obvious for decades in urban areas of the U.S. that schools in predominantly black neighborhoods were generally run-down, second-class affairs, while schools in predominantly white areas looked spiffier and provided a better education. The rising awareness of the necessity of desegregating public schools, starting with the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling that ended state-sanctioned segregated public education in Little Rock, Arkansas, made people in Northern communities pay more attention to their own, more subtle brand of racial segregation.
Berkeley was the first school system in the nation to voluntarily take active steps to integrate. Busing and re-districting would be used to bring kids from different neighborhoods to the same schools. This was a very big deal, even in progressive Berkeley. The school board’s decision to integrate met with both conflict and enthusiasm. My mother, who now worked for the City of Berkeley Mental Health Services, was very involved in the public dialogue. She attended community meetings in peoples’ homes to discuss the issues. Education luminary Robert Coles was summoned from Harvard to shed light on the subject. On the other hand, a group of parents who opposed integration attempted, unsuccessfully, to recall the school board. Many white families pulled their kids out of the public schools to send them to private schools rather than let them attend school with black students.
The first learning institutions to integrate were Berkeley’s junior high schools. Under a plan devised by Marjorie Ramsey, an English teacher with whom I would study in ninth grade, two schools in predominantly white neighborhoods, Garfield and Willard, would now teach only seventh and eighth graders from the entire city. For ninth grade, every student would be funneled into Burbank, located in a predominantly black neighborhood.
I entered Garfield during the first year of this grand scheme. Though many adults had carefully prepared for the change, we students were pretty much left to fend for ourselves. Many in those naïve days thought that children, innocents that we were supposed to be, would instantly transcend over two centuries of gnarly American race relations. If we were all put together, we would naturally Just Get Along, never mind that many of our own parents had been duking it out over the very decision to put us there.
If you were to look across the Garfield schoolyard at lunchtime during that first year, you would see that the kids, when left to their own devices, opted for the segregation that the school board had fought so assiduously to end. Tension, hostility, name-calling, fights and thefts were daily occurrences. However, some students were very aware of the movement for racial equality taking place in larger arenas across the USA. We wanted to play our part in the historic events of the Civil Rights movement. We consciously and deliberately reached out toeach other across the invisible but powerful racial barriers.
A handful of students, including me, formed the Student Relations Committee, a multi-racial school club with a mission to reduce the tensions and promote interracial harmony on our little chunk of educational earth. We held many meetings, initially to get to know each other, and later to come up with a plan to help bring blacks and whites together. (Asians, who formed a large part of Berkeley’s population, were not yet a major part of the dialogue about race relations.) We ended each meeting by holding hands and fervently singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Sidebar: The abiding anthem of the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” inspired people to draw values of justice and equality from a deep well of spirituality and to bring them out to the world in the form of nonviolent action. Pete Seeger had introduced the song, an old spiritual, to Martin Luther King, Jr., who adopted it for the movement. Former S.N.C.C. chair and later Congressman John Lewis said, “It was one of the most powerful and at the same time sacred moments when we would sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’” The song helped give protesters in the South the faith and courage to face hatred and violence as they were heckled, spit on, mangled by police attack dogs, mowed down by fire hoses, beaten, jailed, and some even murdered. For many of us who watched from afar, the song affirmed our own beliefs and made us feel closer to those on the front lines. End sidebar
So what did a sincere and determined band of thirteen year-olds intent on fostering brotherly love come up with? What was our plan to integrate the school? Did we design a blueprint for a sit-in? A teach-in? Discussion groups? Rallies? Did we follow in the august footsteps of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or take the lead from the gutsy students in S.N.C.C. or the activists in the Congress on Racial Equality (C.O.R.E)? Oh no. We had dynamite idea of our own, a true innovation. To our knowledge this powerful concept had never been tried before.
We decided to hold a dance.
Music was the secret weapon we would use to achieve racial integration! We figured that if we threw a big party and played really great dance tunes, kids could just relax and have fun together. Just blow that horn to a great dance beat and the walls between the races would come tumbling down. And so it came to pass that Mimi Kasin, beatnik-at-large, enemy of popular culture wherever it lived, was elected to be the chairperson of a school dance committee.
However, there was a problem. Dance music had insidiously begun to divide along racial lines. In the 1950s, the tunes fueling a whole lotta shaking goin’ on swung both ways across the color barrier. If you knocked off, say, Pat Boone from the whiter shade of pale end of the spectrum and James Brown from the other, everyone hey baba loola-ed the night away to more or less the same songs.
My black friends in the Student Relations Committee passionately insisted that the Beatles were personally responsible for segregating music; that African-Americans couldn’t abide the Fab Four and took their ears elsewhere whenever they came on the radio. However, as Oscar Wilde once said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” The Beatles, like most of the British groups to follow, credited American R&B artists as their major influences. They were currently touring the U.S. along with a black girl group, the Ronettes. Top artists on the soul music labels, Motown and Stax, usually received prominent airplay on predominantly white Top Forty stations. And little did any of us know that the session bands for both labels, the Funk Brothers at Motown and Booker T and the MGs at Stax, were racially integrated. My eighth grade class voted Connie Francis (white) as our favorite singer, and “My Girl” by the Temptations (black) as our favorite song. Nevertheless, there was an undeniable subtext to music involving race and everyone felt it, even if you could never quite put your finger right on it.
Dancing also played a weird role in racial profiling. In the early Sixties, social dancing was a matter of making specific, stylized moves to specific music. While there were a couple of dances designed for surfer music, most were created by and done to the sounds of black artists. African-American kids routinely left their white classmates floundering in the dust as they executed the choreography of each new dance with enthusiasm and style. By the time the white kids had semi-mastered the moves in their own, spastic way, the black kids were already dancing to a different drummer and a new beat. At the time, the phenomenon seemed to support the myth that negroes had a natural sense of rhythm. Those of us struggling mightily to overcome historical prejudices and assumptions railed against such ideas. My smattering of black friends in the Student Relations Committee, the ones who Blamed it on the Beatles, assured me that their dazzling proficiency came from practicing like hell in front of a mirror. Next to sports, they explained, dancing was the traditional area in which black teens could excel. Dancing superlatively just didn’t have the same urgency for white kids; they knew instinctively that they had the home team advantage in everything else life has to offer.
A “dance craze,” as it was always called, was introduced by a Top Forty song that invariably began with a command to, “Do the. . . ” plus or minus “baby,” indicating the person being commanded to do the. . . . Baby, Do the Twist! Do the Swim! Do the Monkey! Do the Jerk! Do the Philly! Baby, Do the Philly Dog! Do the Duck! The initial didactic ditty was followed by a flurry of songs with the just right beat for that particular dance. (In the mid-Sixties, when specific dance moves had given way to more free-form expression, a white British group, Freddy and the Dreamers, attempted to start their own dance craze with “Do the Freddy.” We were exhorted by a geeky but earnest-looking guy in a suit and dark-framed glasses to wave our arms and legs in a variation on the jumping jacks we were forced to perform daily in gym class. Needless to say, it didn’t catch on.)
What happened to the integration-promoting dance? We announced it. The school officials gave us the cafeteria for the event. We pushed all the tables and chairs to the sides and hung colorful crepe paper streamers to liven up the greasy, faded institutional-green walls. Most of the student body showed up: surfers, greasers, blacks, whites, and Asians. I borrowed some recordings of sound effects from KPFA radio station. In between spinning 45 RPM records that Student Relations Committee members had contributed from their collections we played recordings of a faucet dripping, ducks quacking, and doors being slammed. We thought they would be funny, but no one seemed to know what the hell was going on. We exhorted the fattest kid in school to don a Superman costume and rush across the dance floor. (Talk about prejudices! What did we know about size-ism?) We thought it would be funny, but hardly anyone even saw him. Nevertheless, people seemed to be having fun in spite of our goofy schemes. Kids were dancing, all right. The white kids danced on one side of the room and the black kids on the other.
It was unbearable. Unthinkable. I hadn’t prostituted myself by being on a dance committee just to hold a stupid dance! We were supposed to be putting our deepest and most treasured ideals into practice. People had died for the very cause we were supposed to be upholding. This dance was our precious offering to the altar of all those who had put their lives on the line for racial integration.
I looked around. No one from the Student Relations Committee was making a move; everyone was studiously keeping to their racially designated side of the floor. Something had to be done. I smoothed out my Indian bedspread dress and touched my silver peace symbol pendant for luck. As always in stressful moments, I took an inventory of my frizzy hair, glasses, flat chest and limping leg that never failed to trigger a familiar and perversely comforting feeling of self-loathing. I could never make this work. I was the wrong person to try. Someone else should do it—someone prettier, more popular—and definitely someone who knew how to dance. Then I took a deep breath, took aim, marched across the room and started dancing with a large group of African-Americans.
I hoped that others would follow my lead. Not one person made a move. Some of the black kids raised their eyes to heaven and sighed deep sighs of disgust. Well they might, for in addition to my skin color and weird clothing, my Joan Baez records hadn’t done much in the way of teaching me how to do popular dances. Still, I had spent months planning this dance in order to integrate the student body. And if only one girl was willing to volunteer for that mission and that one girl was me, so be it. I held my ground, jiggling around determinedly and ignoring the ill winds of suspicion and hostility swirling all around me.
My resolve held fast for a minute or two. Then the bad vibes started to get to me. No one wanted me there. What a stupid idea. Did I think I could change everything? Did I think I could change anything? What possessed me to believe that I could make a difference?
Suddenly, a deus ex machina appeared in the form of Suzette Johnson, one of the most popular African-American girls on campus. She was pretty, vivacious. and the lead school cheerleader. I knew her slightly from the Student Relations Committee. She grabbed my hand. She greeted me warmly, then led me into the center of the group. She then beamed a thousand-watt smile all around and loudly invited me to dance with her and her friends. A few kids turned their backs and walked away. However, many stayed. As ducks quacked and faucets dripped and Martha and the Vandellas danced in the streets, the hostile feelings gradually, gradually dissipated a little. I could feel the most infinitesimal breeze of wary friendliness wafting my way. The group began dancing in a circle, pulling Suzette and me into the formation. Some of the kids attempted to teach me the dance moves of the Jerk, the Philly, the Philly Dog and the Shotgun. We laughed together at my clumsiness, which further broke the ice and the tension. I felt triumphant, grateful and deeply, deeply relieved.
I don’t remember whether anyone else made a move across the dance floor that day. I don’t think so. In the coming years, there would more integration at the school and in the community. Eventually, Grove Street would no longer be a dividing line between the races. Its name would be changed to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, to acknowledge what it once represented and the changes that had since taken place. Garfield was re-named Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. But on that day in 1964, Suzette, it was you and me, kid. The cheerleader and the beatnik. We integrated that damn dance.
RADIO: THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMING
Junior high school’s a lonely town when you’re the only beatnik girl around. However, I was beginning to feel that Top Forty radio was a necessary penance if I was ever going to be released from the purgatory of chronic not-belonging. Frizzy hair, glasses, a flat chest, a gimpy leg, hero-worship of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a love of folk songs and Beat poetry required a strong antidote.
Top Forty radio was the catechism, but what a cross to bear it was. The litany consisted of two or three songs lasting about three minutes each, played every fifteen minutes and interspersed with DJs shouting out the names of the singers and groups at warp speed, as if driving each song over the finish line. DJs talked over the beginnings and endings of the songs, obliterating the musical framework of each tune. DJ patter was followed by a cacophony of aggressive advertising jingles, weather reports, and a hyperactive recitation of current temperatures around the San Francisco Bay. Every few minutes a chirpy chorus reminded you that this frustrating cavalcade of sound was supplied by “Kay-EE-double-you-BEE, channel ninety-ONE!” Misery and frustration, thy name was “color radio” KEWB.
I had an alarm/radio so that I could fall asleep to music every night and wake up to it every morning. I strained to stay awake far into the night, waiting always for the one song that might soothe my heart and answer all my questions—or at least sound halfway decent. The cycle began again at 7:00 AM with the awakening strains of an electric guitar.
Peter Albin, bass player of Big Brother and the Holding Company told me, “When I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen I played a little transistor radio at night. I first had one of those little crystal machines. You would plug those things into your ear. It had this little rod that would go up and down and you would clip this thing onto your metal bed frame, which became the antenna. Your parents couldn’t hear you because of the earpiece. You could get it in some magazines for like fifty cents. It actually ran, it was a crystal radio. You’d get only powerful signals. Later on I got a radio that had the little plug-in and listened to it late at night. My parents were asleep and this was happening. KWBR—that was an Oakland station. It only played black music. On Sundays it had just gospel shows. It had live broadcasts from churches in Oakland.”
The airwaves, however, were becoming socially problematical. There were now two Top Forty stations broadcasting out of San Francisco. KEWB, bane of my eighth grade existence, now slept with the fishes. At first, the Bay Area teenage population collectively moved the dial over to KYA. Things at KYA were just a wee bit more loosely strung. DJs could slip in a few old songs, which they weighted towards R&B, in between all the contemporary tunes. They also had a few inches of wiggle room in which to slip a bit more of their personalities through the standard Top Forty DJ mold.
KYA became unglued altogether during the midnight to six A.M. shift belonging to Russ “the Moose” Syracuse. He christened himself “the captain of the all-night flight on the super freak 1260 (KYA’s number on the radio dial).” He regularly assured his passengers that “the stewardesses will soon be serving after-crash mints.” Each evening, Russ the Moose allowed someone to phone in and bomb a record. The lucky soul could name a tune to which he or she was heartily sick of listening. Russ would then crank up the offending song. About halfway into it you would suddenly hear the whine of bombs dropping followed by loud explosions. The record would slow down, the needle would screech across the grooves, and you would hear the performer’s death throes as the record slowly ground to a halt. There followed a potent moment of quiet on the Western front. The tune was toast for the rest of the night.
Russ the Moose instituted something called the Love Line, which was populated by “phone freaks.” Someone, almost always a guy, would call in hoping to attract a date. Russ would interview him about his looks and his likes and dislikes. Interested girls could then call in and talk to the guy off-mic. When Russ asked one particular phone freak, who was obviously stoned out of his gourd, about his interests, the supplicant replied in a spacey voice, “I like (long pause while he considered the question) corduroy!” Even the captain of the Super Freak was rendered speechless.
I particularly liked the more subtle charms of the nine-to-midnight DJ, Tommy Saunders. He occasionally performed the radical act of signing off with a contemporary jazz piano track. Occasionally he’d also drop a word or two about musicians he liked, including Mose Allison, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. I would always buy any album he plugged because any music Tommy Saunders recommended inevitably knocked my socks off. One evening I called him up on the request line and asked for some new recommendations. During the short gaps afforded by ads and three-minute songs Saunders enthusiastically educated me about jazz, blues, and obscure folk artists. Then he began to recommend San Francisco nightclubs in which to hear good jazz. Somewhere after an hour or so of oft-interrupted but animated conversation, I let it slip out that I was fifteen and could not go to the night clubs. He immediately mumbled something and hung up.
About forty years later I spoke with Tom (no longer Tommy) Saunders during his show on KOIT in San Francisco. It was déjà vu as he talked for awhile and periodically muttered, “just a minute” and left to make some announcements in his familiar DJ-speak. Then he’d be back for another few more minutes of conversation.
“I came to KYA from Buffalo, New York in 1962 with Russ the Moose and a few others,” he told me. “Everyone else was in their late twenties and early thirties and I had just turned twenty-one, so I was the baby of that group. KYA promised me $250 per week and a seven-year contract. The station had very experienced DJs, so I was a bit intimidated. I didn’t plan to stay in radio forever; I was going to be an English teacher. However, San Francisco State University had compulsory ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a military program on college campuses, sometimes mandatory for male students] and gym classes, which I didn’t want to do. So I went to Cal [University of California at Berkeley]. I’d come home from school, drink about three beers, weave across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, do my show, and then come home and collapse. Cal got boring, and with the times changing I decided to stay in radio. It was easy to get jobs on Top Forty stations back then—you just had to be outrageous and eccentric and follow the play list.
“We were a loose station at KYA—we could do anything we wanted. The manager wanted everyone to have a distinct personality; he didn’t like cookie-cutter Top Forty stations. None of those guys from Buffalo wanted to do the standard screaming format; we wanted to subvert it. The forced enthusiasm is what we hated most. You had to sound totally pumped about the weather, temperatures, etc. Bob McClay and I were infected by comedians like Mort Sahl and especially Lenny Bruce, and we’d slip in bits from their routines. We were ultimately disappointed not to have made more of a difference.”
There was yet one more very elusive and exclusive radio option: international man of mystery, Wolfman Jack. He had adopted a radio voice largely based on that of the blues singer, Howlin’ Wolf. His show blasted northward from a tower in Mexico with a bodacious 50,000 watts of power—so much amplitude, not to mention attitude, that you could hear him in Berkeley—when you could find him, that is. You had to turn your radio dial ever so slooowwwly and delicately back and forth around 1090 on the AM dial. On some nights you’d be rewarded with a static-laced but unmistakable voice jumping and jiving and ranting and raving and howling at a moon presumably looming large over Tijuana skies. In between, the Wolfman would spin some fabulous R & B and soul records. He was an underground sensation that only a few, we thought, knew about and could tune in at the karmic whim of all those Mexican mega-watts. I’m sort of glad that we didn’t know that the howling hipster was really named Bob Smith, that he taped his shows in a recording studio in Hollywood and sent them to the station in Tijuana with that turbo-charged signal—and that every last damn teenager in the wastelands of Southern California listened to him all the time.
Garfield’s large African-American student population and a smattering of savvy white kids listened to a couple of R&B and soul music stations out of Oakland. Few realized that some of the DJs were actually white. The father of Pigpen of the Grateful Dead was a DJ on an R&B station, under the moniker Cool Breeze. KDIA Lucky Thirteen featured G.O. George. Tiny KSOL, “Kay-Soul,” did night patrol along the airwaves with a mighty 250 watts of power, as opposed to KDIA’s 5000 watts. It boasted one DJ, Dr. Soul, who had a voice like Isaac Hayes but was actually a white hip cat with a big red beard.
However, it was Sylvester Stewart, aka Sly Stone who ruled KSOL’s small range of influence, playing fantastic music, tearing up the place, making strange voices and yelling and screaming. In 1964, the man who would eventually lead one of the most wasted of psychedelic bands, Sly and the Family Stone, was still trying to jump-start a music career. At one point he landed a gig in a nightclub that was scheduled to start over an hour before his nightly radio show ended. If you had tuned in around 10 PM that particular evening, you would have been treated to Sly singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” KSOL was one of the many radio stations that didn’t have twenty-four hour programming. All such stations played the national anthem before going off the air—albeit usually a pre-recorded orchestral version. After a rousing “…and the home of the brave!” Sly put KSOL to bed two hours early and split for his gig.
THE IN CROWD AND GREASERS
A long-standing tradition at Garfield Junior High School was for outsiders to stare longingly at the In Crowd, who congregated in their select section of the playground near the cafeteria. In 1964 the theme of their party was surfing, driven by a new wave of music from Los Angeles making a giant splash across the country. Few if any Garfield surfers had ever actually ridden a surfboard in the freezing, riptide-plagued waters of Northern California. However, the reality of surfing was irrelevant to surfing music. It created a mythology in which paradise was an eternal Malibu summer with white sand beaches populated by beautiful Aryan girls in bikinis and guys in baggy swim trunks. Everyone there had straw-blond hair bleached by a sun more dazzling, nurturing and embracing than the sunburn-provoking orb that hovered over planet earth. The only time that endless, cloudless, deep blue sky grew dark was when surfer boys and beach bunnies gathered around bonfires under a glowing full moon for more surf music and fun. In this music-fueled heaven there was nary a parent in sight, nor a scrap of homework, nor zits, nor unwanted pregnancies. No African-Americans sullied those pristine shores. You had to acquire your tan, and if you born with it you did not belong here.
The In Crowd listened to the celestial harmonies of the Beach Boys and the sun-drenched stylings of Jan and Dean. In crowders had make-out parties (and knew how to make out). Boys had blonde hair, often secretly lightened by peroxide, that fell over their eyes. They periodically swept back those locks with a practiced, slightly impatient but nonchalant toss of the head, as if an In Crowd guy’s hair just fell in his eyes in that sexy way all on its own and wasn’t worth the muscle power of raising a hand to push it back. Surfing music dictated that the male braves of its tribe wear Madras plaid shirts with the tails hanging out over powder blue jeans, and blue tennies (tennis shoes, precursor to running shoes) with white socks (if you wore colored socks you were a queer). In Crowd boys accessorized their uniform with a skateboard tucked casually under a tanned arm. Surfer girls shaved their legs and wore nylons and bras that puckered against their Orlon sweaters. They smeared their blonde hair with Dippity-do or lemon Jello and wrapped it around orange juice cans every night until it jelled into a perfect flip—that would have flopped had they ever actually gone surfing.
The only students who didn’t give a rat’s ass about the In Crowd were the Greasers. These were kids who embraced risk and rebellion. The ultimate status symbol was to be sent to “juvey,” juvenile hall. Greasers cut classes and met off-campus where they could smoke. They talked tough and used all the words that could get you suspended if you said them within earshot of a teacher. Greasers looked sullen and scary. Girls ratted their hair into gigantic bouffant ‘dos, lined their eyes with black eye pencil and smeared their lips with white lipstick. They wore black leatherette coats, and tight skirts rolled up at the waist to daringly expose their knees. Greaser boys combed their hair into greasy pompadours. They kept plastic combs in their back pockets to apply to their Brylcreamed hair with a stylized choreography unique to their tribe. Their black pants were “pegged,” taken in at the inseam to make them as tight as possible. Most importantly, they wore really mean scowls. The Greaser look was later neutered and spruced up to appear benign and cute in Grease and Happy Days, but its original standard bearers were nasty pieces of work.
Everyone heading to the bus stop after school had to run the gauntlet of the Greasers’ taunts. They let you know that, unlike you, they weren’t afraid of living fast and dying young—if not in deed then in song. To that end, their music consisted largely of rock ‘n roll anthems to fast cars. Just as the In Crowd listened to surfer music without ever actually touching a surfboard, greasers extolled automobiles without actually driving them. Even if an eighth-grade girl had a boyfriend old enough to have a driver’s license as well as a condom in his wallet, exceedingly few Berkeley teens possessed their own wheels.
Greaser music included that unique expression of American teen angst, the car crash death song. These were Top Forty ditties describing young people dying in horrific car wrecks. These tragic odes were set to melodies you could sing along with and rhythms you could actually dance to. There were loads of ‘em—a bona fide genre including “Teen Angel,” “Where Oh Where Can My Baby Be?” “Leader of the Pack” and “Tell Laura I Love Her:”
Even predominantly surfer groups crossed over with a small catalogue of car songs, including Jan and Dean’s ode to vehicular manslaughter, “Dead Man’s Curve.” What was reaaallly spooky about these songs was that Ray Peterson was in a serious auto accident shortly after releasing “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and Jan Berry tragically crashed and burned in a spot eerily close to the real Dead Man’s Curve. This added a metaphysical element of danger.
I’M IN WITH THE OUT CROWD
There must be some way out of here. I felt like I was being folded, spindled and mutilated by a minotaur who presided over the vast, disorienting maze that was my life. Disquieting changes were taking place in my family, but no one talked openly about them. We were each caught up in our own individual dramas. By eighth grade I had undergone three major orthopedic surgeries and had a toe amputated. When looking at photos from my childhood, I can only find a few in which I wasn’t wearing either a brace or a cast.
Dad was increasingly absent from our lives. I knew that something was very wrong, but could not name it. He started to come home very late at night. Where was he? Whenever he was stressed out or bored he used to head for a Chinese gambling joint in Emeryville to play poker. Probably that’s where he was. However, there was a quality to these absences that left those close to him feeling jittery and scared.
I was desperately afraid that some night my father would stop coming home altogether. I would stay awake, willing him to come back, too scared to sleep until I heard the front door softly open and close. Soon, I could hardly sleep at all. Bad things happened when you fell asleep. You could wake up with a cast on your leg, or you might find out that your father wasn’t ever coming home because you had fallen down on the job of willing him back.
I started having fantasies that I had contracted some hideous fatal disease, the kind that killed slowly and painfully. I also started imagining that my food was poisoned. I avoided eating as much as possible, frequently to the point of weakness. Who was poisoning me? No one I could name. Garfield Junior High School sure wasn’t helping matters. The social pecking order, the unwritten but inviolable rules of dress and behavior and the prickly race relations were also exacting a toll.
My pediatrician prescribed sleeping pills for the insomnia, anti-spasmodics for my tummy, a more compassionate math teacher and a therapist. My parents obliged. I took the pills. Once a week, after school I took a bus to the office of Evelyn Finkle, MSW. I spent each session vehemently denying that I might be upset about a thing or two. Everything’s A-OK. My left foot looks strange and I’ve had lots of operations and I limp? Hey, no big deal! I don’t feel ugly, or stupid, or isolated. It’s just not true that I don’t have any friends since the other Walden girls sashayed effortlessly into the In Crowd. And one last thing, Mrs. Finkle: I absolutely positively don’t feel like the score of my personal worth is at the rock bottom of the list of the entire human race.
St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of teenagers—even Jewish ones, evidently—suddenly decided to toss me a lifeline, a ball of thread with which to navigate my way through the maze. A handful of kids from the Student Relations Committee discovered that we all loved folk songs. We joined folkie forces and declared ourselves to be the Out Crowd. There were two unwritten requirements for throwing your kazoo into the ring with us: 1. You had to love, honor and cherish folk music, forsaking all others till death do you part. 2. You had to be a social outcast. We were the girls with unruly hair who did not yet shave our legs or need bras. We were the boys who had sprouted neither height nor pubic hair, and who did not yet know how to treat girls other than as sisters.
We claimed our own part of the playground, far from the madding crowds of pseudo-surfers and bad-ass wannabes. Instead of skateboards and transistor radios we carried guitars, banjos, mandolins, autoharps, dulcimers, harmonicas and rapidly changing voices. Every lunchtime and recess we gathered together to merrily sing our hearts out about people facing hangmen’s nooses, women forced into houses of prostitution, men rendered bankrupt and diseased by prostitutes, Cocaine Bill and Morphine Sue, alcoholism, poverty, drought, pestilence, mining disasters, train wrecks, nuclear holocaust and what we would do if we had a hammer.
We reassembled after school at the nearby University of California campus to sing, strum and toot. By the end of the afternoon, scores of collegiate passersby had joined the party. “The Midnight Special,” a folk song program on KPFA radio, even invited a few Out Crowders to perform on the show.
Some of the Out Crowd sounded pretty darn good. I didn’t. Although I could effortlessly memorize the lyrics to hundreds of songs, I couldn’t carry a tune to save my sorry soul. On weekends I practiced the guitar until my fingers were bleeding, trying to build up the calluses necessary for painlessly chording steel strings. Everybody knew that the best folk singers preferred the piercing, metallic sounds of steel strings over the mellower tones of the more finger-friendly nylon variety used for classical guitar. The most accomplished strummers among us would complain in a macho boasting sort of way about spending months building up their calluses, only to have them all instantaneously drop off in the bathtub. I waited for that to happen every time I took a bath. However, even with a little judicious picking to encourage them to abandon ship, I never succeeded in doing something as hip and cool as molting my guitar calluses.
Towards the end of eighth grade an immigrant from a world far, far beyond the reach of most Out Crowders entered our folk fray. Pablo Menendez was the son of Barbara Dane, legendary folk artist, blues singer and political activist. Pablo lived in Berkeley with his father, a Mexican Adonis who created delicate silver jewelry in a tiny workshop just off of Telegraph Avenue. Pablo had a combination of Nordic and Mexican features that rendered him a golden god, with skin the color of fresh caramel and big eyes framed by thick fringes of black lashes. The shocker was his hair: a gently curling, light gold halo crowning all that smoldering Mexican swarthiness. Pablo had a quiet and gentle demeanor overlaid with a veneer of toughness that he emphasized by wearing a peace button pinned to his shirt and a pair of don’t-mess-with-me-or-I’ll-nonviolently-kick-the-living-shit-out-of-you suede boots. It was enough to make any girl weak in the knees. I secretly nourished my first-ever crush by taking surreptitious peeks at him from my desk, one row over and two seats back, in Miss Grant’s Spanish class. Naturally, Pablo had the pick of the chicks and of course I wasn’t one of them. However I felt ridiculously happy that he considered me a friend as a fellow member of the Out Crowd.
THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.
—- Mario Savio, Free Speech Movement leader
The Free Speech Movement took place at the University of California at Berkeley from September to December of 1964. Students had long set up card tables in Sproul Plaza with literature and paraphernalia in support of various political causes. The U.C. Regents suddenly instituted a ban on all political activities on campus. Students immediately revolted and and held massive protests. A sit-in in Sproul Hall, the University’s administration building, led to the largest mass arrest in California since World War II, when Japanese citizens had been rounded up and taken to internment camps. By December, the Board of Regents retracted the order; the students had won.
Singing accompanied the demonstrations and the sit-in. Music was essential to the strike, to rouse the protesters and cheer them on, or to calm down and focus the crowd. The strikers sang civil rights songs and union songs from the 1930s. They composed songs with creative and often satirical lyrics. Organizers published a songbook and made a record which raised funds for the strike.
Pablo’s mother, singer and activist Barbara Dane, sang to thousands of protesters from atop a police car containing Jack Weinberg, a leader of the Movement who had been arrested for manning a table for C.O.R.E. Strikers surrounded the car for thirty-two hours.
Barbara Dane told me, “I was packing to move to New York. Pablo was going to the sit in with the crowd. I got a call from Peter Fracnk, a young attorney who was helping strike leader Mario Savio. He said that Mario was exhausted had been holding the crowd together for over twenty-four hours, and could I come and hold the crowd together? So I sang peace songs and anti-racist songs. Looking around Sproul Plaza was quite a sight. They rigged up a platform on top of the police car. People up there speaking and singing around the clock.”
Joan Baez would later sing to the students from the Sproul Hall steps, including “All My Trials” with the lyrics changed to “All your trials will soon be over.” She ended with a slow, somber rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”
I was overcome with fervor. The Free Speech Movement trickled down to Garfield and enveloped us in the excitement gripping the city and the nation. My fellow students included the son of a U.C. Chancellor and children of faculty who supported the Regents on one side, and the offspring of faculty and children who had older siblings attending the university who supported the strike on the other. There were constant discussions and arguments as we followed the momentous events unfolding barely a mile away from Garfield.
THE BERKELEY FOLK FESTIVAL
Shortly after Pablo started hanging with us, his mother and her partner, Irwin Silber, publisher of the folk music magazine Sing Out! arrived from New York for the Berkeley Folk Festival. They extended welcoming hands to Pablo’s small circle of friends by distributing free tickets to anyone who wanted to attend. Oh, joy! Pablo’s father and his partner, Sylvia, invited all of us to a backyard barbeque before the festival. The house boasted a swimming pool, and Sylvia offered to loan me her bathing suit. She took me to the bedroom. I snuck peeks at the bed in which two people who weren’t married slept and did those other things, marveling at how ordinary it looked. Then she handed me a white two-piece suit. It was quite modest by today’s standards, but at that time the thought of exposing a few inches of my middle was way too daring. Even worse, I had absolutely nothing to offer those generously molded bra cups. I made some lame excuse and handed the suit back, and Sylvia was tactful enough not to press the issue.
Barbara Dane told me about choosing politics over a successful singing career: “I wasn’t placing my politics second to my singing, so my career was going down the tubes. Al Grossman brought me to the Gate of Horn in Chicago and was courting me to become one of his clients. He arranged for me to do a tour in India with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and I was pulled off of it by the State Department.…Around late Fifties. In early Sixties, when I was doing traditional jazz, I was asked to do a tour in Europe with Louis Armstrong in Europe. That was a dream come true. I was on the Timex Jazz Spectacular with Louis, and then all of a sudden the phone stopped ringing and and it was like a metal wall got pulled down in front of the store. Louis’s manager Joe Glazer gave Louis an ultimatum not to talk about civil rights any more. I defined my path and I followed my path. I didn’t have anyone leading me by the nose anywhere. Free.”
Barry Olivier, founder and director of the Berkeley Folk Festivals, told me, “I came to Berkeley in 1947. Berkeley was already a center for folk music. The first folk music concert on campus was at the Faculty Glade in 1912. It probably was performed by college girls in very formal dress. Professor Bronson in the English department was a great ballad scholar. He got interested in old songs when he joined The Campfire Club in 1927 in U.C. Berkeley, in which people sang folk songs. Carl Sandburg used to do poetry readings. He had played guitar since he was a child. He found that if he played and sang some folk songs at his poetry readings he would always get invited back to do another performance, so he made folk singing part of his readings. Leadbelly performed in Berkeley in the early 1940s.
“The first Berkeley Folk Festival was in 1956. I had been doing a folk music show on KPFA for five years. So I proposed to the university a concert with the local folk singers. In 1956 and 1957 we put on one-night concerts for free. They had large audiences and got good reviews. The university saw that I could organize. The big festivals started in 1958. It was the bastard child of the university. When the politics of the festival became more terrifying than annoying in 1970 I stopped organizing. “
The 1965 festival featured a series of concerts and workshops lasting all day and well into each evening. Performers included Doc Watson and his son Merle, Sam Hinton, Malvina Reynolds, Jean Ritchie, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Mike Seeger and his grandfather, Charles, Mississippi John Hurt, Almeda Riddle and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Every performer, every song, every strum of a guitar or banjo or dulcimer vibrated my heartstrings as if in perfect attunement with my soul.
I attended all events large and small. I soaked up lyrics and folklore. At a session on mountain music, Jean Ritchie demonstrated an Appalachian children’s toy, a doll with movable arms and legs that danced from the end of a stick. I approached her afterwards and asked for a closer look. I sketched while Mrs. Ritchie showed me how the doll was put together. Later, I would carve such a toy as a present for my brother.
Of all the dazzling musicians at the festival I fell hard for Mississippi Fred McDowell. His growling, boozy blues escorted me to places I’d never been—and never wanted to go to other than in song. I followed him like a puppy from concert to workshop to impromptu jam session. He wore an ill-fitting, cheap suit amidst white college students sporting work shirts, blue jeans and wide leather belts with significant buckles. McDowell wailed out pain and loneliness in a gravelly voice, accompanied by liquid scratches produced by sliding a glass bottleneck up and down steel guitar strings.
I bought McDowell’s album recorded by Arhoolie Records from Campus Records and brought it to him for an autograph. He moved very close to me, exhaling a whisky-laced sigh onto my peace button.
“Well now,” he mumbled, contemplating the album cover. After a long minute he accepted the pen I held out and scratched a shaky “X” onto the corner of the cover. He looked embarrassed as he handed it back to me. I was shocked down to my sandals. Evidence of illiteracy was something I had not encountered before.
The next day I sought out McDowell after a bottle neck slide guitar workshop he had just burnt to a crisp with his stunning guitar licks. He was standing by himself, stooped over a little and appearing awkward and self-conscious.
“Mr. McDowell, can you tell me how to make a bottleneck?”
“Well, now,” he replied, looking relieved as he slipped back into his area of competence. He settled into a chair and motioned for me to sit beside him. He leaned in very close.
“Take a whisky bottle with a neck that fits over your finger.”He held up a brown tube of thick glass that encased the third finger of a scarred hand traced with veins. “Then soak a piece of string in gasoline and wrap it around the neck of the bottle about two inches from the top. Set the string on fire; it’ll melt a groove into the glass. Next, stick your finger into the bottleneck and smash the bottle against the sidewalk. That bottleneck’ll come off nice and clean.”
When I enthusiastically related these instructions to my parents at the dinner table, they looked aghast and immediately put all their feet down. I promised I’d use a Coca Cola bottle instead of a whiskey bottle, but for some reason that large concession didn’t move them the way it should have.
John Cipollina lead guitar of the Quicksilver Messenger Service related in the film, Electric Guitar Singer, “Muddy Waters came up to me once and said, ‘Y’know, you’re pretty good for a white boy.’ He goes, ‘I’m gonna tell you, I’m gonna show you something I’ve never shown any white boy ever. I’m gonna show you how to play slide guitar.’ My heart almost fell out of my chest. I’m serious. And this guy is so drunk—he’s been drinking gin like never before and he’s lying on this couch upstairs in the Fillmore. And this is in 1966 but he was already one of my heroes. Like I said, I knew all of his songs; I was finally getting to meet one of my heroes and he kept saying he’s going to let me in on one of the biggest secrets ever. And I got this close to him, and his breath was so foul from gin. And as soon as he was sure there was nobody around he goes,
‘Here’s what you do.’ He says, ‘First of all you steal a bicycle. Then you get yourself a saw and you cut a part of the handlebar off and you put it on your finger.’
And I said Yeah?
And he said. ‘Yeah.’ And then he passed out. But I said, ‘Then what?’ And he looked at me and says, ‘You run it up and down the neck!’
In Berkeley there was always a political subtext to complicate matters. It had been only six months since the Free Speech Movement had fomented in and around the festival venue. The name of the game at all the workshops was Authenticity with a capital “A.” As far as I could see from the wisdom and experience of my thirteen years, Authenticity was something defined by a bunch of white middle class college students and professors who felt entitled to decide who had the right to be a folk singer. Authentic folk singers came from designated folk music regions such as broken-down shacks along the Mississippi Delta with decrepit dogs lying on the front porches, and broken-down shacks in the Appalachians with rusty washing machine parts scattered across strip-mined front yards.
Barry Olivier agreed. “Authenticity was discussed from 1959 right through to 1966. I was very tight-assed about what was folk music and what wasn’t. It was all BS, but I didn’t think so at the time. Purity is such a relative thing.”
Blues singer Nick Gravenites wrote, “Authenticity was very important to the folk musicians that we knew, after all, we were looking for America in its roots so we could be real Americans and we felt that we were keeping the music alive in its original form for future generations, like good Americans should.”
Authentic songs were about jail time, moonshine, benders, back porches, crying babies, faithless women and rambling, gambling men, of whom at least twenty were members of the Stagalee clan.
Jerry Garcia said, “[Lyricist Robert] Hunter and I always had this thing where we liked to muddy the folk tradition. We had our ‘Casey Jones’ song. We had our ‘Stagger Lee’ song.
Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale named his son Malik Nkrumah Staggerlee Seale.
Sidebar: “Stagger Lee” had been traveling up and down the Mississippi River since the turn of the century. Ma Rainey first recorded “Stack O’ Lee Blues” in 1925. There are dozens of recorded versions. It all started when The St. Louis Globe Democrat reported in 1895: “William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at 11th and Megan streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. . . . Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.” end sidebar
Authentic music sounded scratchy. Authentic folk singers had twangy accents and were permanently bent in sorrow by poverty and injustice.
Dave Mandel told me, “A lot of the folk crowd to this day are very stodgy about being folk purists. If you play guitar and any modern music you are not welcome in their venues. A bunch of upper middle class white kids who were as unauthentic as they could be mimicking the Carter family and the old black blues musicians of the Delta, Big Bill Bronnzy. They weren’t about music just for music, that were about ‘you’re going to play music my way or you’re not cool.’”
The whipping boys in absentia, representing everything that was phony, commercial and deplorable, were Peter Paul and Mary. They were too well scrubbed, too choreographed, too harmonic, too pretty, and way too white. Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs valiantly tried to defend the trio, pointing out that they used to perform in Greenwich Village coffee houses and therefore had paid their dues in full, but they were shouted down by folks who didn’t even sing.
Authenticity was already under attack in 1965. And at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, besides the famous booing of a plugged-in Bob Dylan, a lesser-known ruckus took place over the authenticity of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Barbara Dane told me, “One of the pseudo movements that I found every upsetting was the Jerry Rubin/Abbie Hoffman thinking. Irwin was with them at the Newport festival. Jerry got all excited when someone had the audience in the palm of their hands. He said “They should call for revolution right now!” He thought if the artist would just say the word and a revolution would come out of the Newport Folk Festival. This was a colossal self-delusion.”