Over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of different subcultures. At the time, these subcultures seemed like exciting and dynamic forces in the world. But over the years, they would mostly all evaporate into nothingness.
This first subculture I was involved in was the Psychedelic ’60s Hippie subculture. When I first moved to California in 1976 as a teenager, one of the first things my older sister and her hippie boyfriend (who were members in good-standing in the subculture) did was take me to a Hot Tuna concert at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco. Ten years earlier, in 1966, the Longshoreman’s Hall had been the venue for the first Trips Festival, one of the seminal events of the Psychedelic ’60s Hippie subculture. And here we were ten years later, stepping into the lineage.
And of course we were tripping on LSD at the concert. Hot Tuna was up on stage, decked out in their finest hippie finery. And to the right of the stage there were about hundred people sitting in chairs. The VIP section for the “Hot Tuna family.” Their friends and associates and groupies. It was like Hot Tuna was one of the royal families of the hippie subculture, and the people in the chairs were the royal court. And we in the crowd were the commoners, dancing along. And, of course, the Hot Tuna family was an offshoot of the Jefferson Airplane family, who were central to the whole lineage. There were all these different offshoots. Like if you liked the Grateful Dead you could join the Deadhead cult (short for “subculture”) and be part of the Grateful Dead family It meant more than just Going To A Concert back then. It was more like going to church. More like a way of reaffirming your membership in the cult.
KSAN was the famous San Francisco “underground radio station” of the time. And they played a central role in connecting all the inter-connected families of the subculture. And of course we looked at all the DJs at KSAN as part of our family. I remember drawing a comic strip about Scoot Nisker and some of the other KSAN DJs and getting it published in the Berkeley Barb (one of the house organs of the cult). And then some of the KSAN DJs invited me down to the legendary KSAN radio station on Sansome Street in San Francisco, to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a comic book about KSAN. I remember seeing Bonnie Simmons – one of the program directors and one of the unofficial Queens of the Scene — in her office. Actually I didn’t see her, but I heard her talking, her legendary voice which you could spot a mile away. And her office was packed with flowers (I think this was around Valentine’s Day). But that’s what it was like back then. You could immerse yourself in the subculture as deeply as you wanted to push into it.
Then in 1978 I started getting involved in the Punk Rock subculture. And that was exciting. Because instead of getting in on the tail-end of the old-fart hippie subculture, I was getting into a subculture from the ground floor up, with people my own age, and making up all the rules as we went along. People were always talking about “networking” back then. And “be more than a witness.” And over the years, the Punk Rock subculture built up from a handful of bohemian weirdos scattered in a handful of cities in England and the USA, to this international phenomenon.
Then in 1982 I immersed myself in the San Francisco Bike Messenger subculture. A good percentage of the bike messengers were offshoots of the Hippie and Punk subcultures. So it was getting to be sub-subcultures within subcultures. Within the culture at large. The bike messengers were a true community. And we all partied together after work. And put on bike messenger shows featuring bike messenger musicians and bike messenger artists. And we were all joined together by the common bond of the secret world we all shared that outsiders could never understand.
Then, around 1986 I immersed myself in the Underground Comics/Fanzine subculture. The lineage in the Bay Area started with Last Gasp press (with R. Crumb as their main honcho) and Rip Off Press (with Gilbert Sheldon as their main honcho) and all the ’60s underground newspapers. And it developed from there. It was sort of a telepathic subculture in that we rarely saw eachother in the flesh. But we communicated with eachother via our comics and publications and interviews and letters.
Then, around 1993, I immersed myself in the Telegraph Avenue Street subculture. The scene at the time was kind of a village-within-a-village. And we all knew each other. It was kind of like high school, where you had the Cool Kids, the Nerds, the Hot Chicks, and everybody in between. To this day I still think of what I call “the Class of 1994.” All the people that happened to be inter-connected during that particular time and place.
But like I said. The odd thing about these subcultures — which seemed so real and vibrant at the time. They would all sort of peak and then fade away. It was as if you had finally found this wonderful place to live. This wonderful desert island full of fruit-trees and lush vegetation and topless Hula girls strumming on ukuleles and swaying in the breeze. And then they all evaporated right before your eyes. Like they had just been a mirage all along.
Nowadays, I’m not connected to any kind of subcultures. Or much of anything, for that matter. I mostly live an isolated and alienated lifestyle. I’m not complaining. That’s just the cards I’ve been dealt at this point. Sometimes, I would spot Scoop Nisker, the former KSAN DJ, on Telegraph Avenue. He was almost always by himself, sitting alone at a coffeeshop, writing on his laptop. And I always wondered if he felt a similar sense of loss. Or if he still felt connected to the Psychedelic ’60s Hippie subculture. Or if he had found a new subculture to be a part of.
It all reminded me a little of an episode of Cheers, this TV sit-com. Once a year, for 50 years, the members of this World War I platoon would all get together at this bar for a reunion. They would reminisce and re-connect with each other, and the common bond they shared as members of this unique group. And every year there would be less and less of them showing up for the reunion. Until finally, it was just this one old man, sitting at the bar, waiting for his compadres to show up, until it finally dawned on him that he was the only one left. Everyone else was dead. And his group had disappeared like a mirage.
As you get older, you realize finally that there’s only one group left to join. Its a very big group. And we all join it eventually.