One of the big attractions for me was Hate Man’s drum circle. Just about every night for 20 years Hate Man set up a big drum circle on Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus. The “drums” were mostly made up of ground-scored buckets, barrels, sticks and scrap metal. And there’d usually be 20 or 30 of us in a circle, bashing away for hours. We made one helluva’ racket, I can tell you that. Hate Man dubbed it “the Chaos Drums. ” But most people just referred to it as “Hate Man’s drum circle.”
Unlike most normal drum circles, Hate Man encouraged everyone to play whatever beat they felt like. So some times you’d have 20 people playing 20 different beats. Which could get a little dischordant, especially if you had a speed-freak in the middle of the circle, maniacally clanking away on the scrap metal (!!).
But there was also a joyous frenzy to the whole thing; this sort of contained madness. And sometimes it could actually be quite musical, especially if you had a couple guys who could really play the drums. Usually it was like this monotonous stomp, this sort of rolling thunder that I found soothing and meditative even. I liked to repeat my mantra under my breath for hours as we drummed. And I liked the physical, non-verbal aspect of relating to the other drummers — a much-needed respite from my usual hyper-intellectual self. Some of the guys would some times take their shirts off as they drummed, and hippie chicks and punkettes would sometimes snake-dance in the middle of the circle. So there was something ancient and tribal about the whole thing.
We usually quit drumming around 10 o’clock. Then we’d hit the coffee shop on the corner at closing time, and they’d give us all their left-over coffee (usually two big jugs of hot, black coffee), half-and-half, whipped cream and day-old pastries (ham-and-swiss-cheese croissants!). Then we’d hit the pizza place and they’d give us 20 or 30 left-over hot slices of pizza and whatever other goodies they hadn’t sold that day. So it was like having a catered party every night at Hate Camp.
* * *
The drums were still roaring. But a bunch of us were taking a break from the action, lounging around on the steps in front of Sproul Hall, smoking, drinking and hanging out. This blonde hippie boy in his 30s named Biff was at the top of the steps under the pillars, pacing back and forth. He had showed up about a week ago with a ratty sleepingbag under his arm, and he’d been pacing back and forth all week, angrily shouting and screaming to the heavens this crazy babble, like he was talking to God or something:
“OH HEAVENLY FATHER RAIN DOWN YOUR VENGANCE ON THE TOWN OF BERKELEY!! SMITE EVERY ONE OF THE BASTARDS FOR THE EVIL SINS THEY HAVE PERPETUATED ON ME!!” Etc, etc.
Nobody paid it much mind. Because, frankly, there are so many street-crazies in Berkeley you really got to stand out to get a rise out of anyone. But I found it a little disturbing. Biff had been around the Berkeley scene for years and years. A sort of face-in-the-crowd to me. Seemed like an OK guy. I had him pegged as a pampered rich kid. He’d usually be driving a pretty new-looking car. And he always had an expensive hand-drum strapped to his back. For years Biff was a regular at the lower Sproul drum circle where the normal drummers jammed out normal African and Latin rhythms. You’d see him there drumming away, often shirtless with this smooth, hairless chest, and baggy, silky, colorful hippie pants and sandals. And he’d often have some kind of cool-looking tribal-type necklace around his neck. Biff had the air of the eternal high school “cool kid” who always hung out with the “cool crowd.” And he seemed perfectly normal, at least by Berkeley standards. Always seemed like one of those privileged guys who was one large step up from the skuzzy lot of the street scene. So it was somewhat surprising to see that he had fallen down to our level.
I had had a few brief conversations with Biff over the years and I’d never noticed anything particularly odd about him, aside from the fact that when he talked to you he would stare directly into your eyes and talk in this extremely earnest and humorless tone. And he’d often spout this sort of pseudo-cosmic talk that never completely made sense. But I just figured he was a hip, cool type that was trying to be hip and cool.
But now it was as if something had suddenly snapped in Biff’s brain. And there he was, day after day, pacing back and forth atop the Sproul Hall steps, angrily haranguing God (his “Heavenly Father” as he called Him) at the top of his lungs. Like Samson, chained to the pillars, appealing to God to release him.
Then this guy Jamey showed up on his bike. Jamey was another one of those hip, cool guys who worked behind the counter at Wall Berlin, the hip, cool coffee shop where all the other hip, cool people hung out. Jamey climbed up the top of the steps and confronted Biff in a decidedly unhip and uncool way.
“Listen Biff, I’m telling you for the last time,” shouted Jamey. “You gotta’ come by my place and get all your stuff you’ve been storing there. Your drums and all your other stuff. I don’t have the space to store it any more. And I’m telling you now, if you don’t get it tonight I’m gonna’ throw it all out tomorrow!!”
Biff made an angry comment to Jamey, imploring God the Father to rain down a plague of locust on this infidel’s head. And then proceeded to ignore Jamey and continue his pacing and ranting.
So Jamey sort of grabbed Biff by the shoulders, to kind of shake some sense into him, and shouted right in his face: “Listen, Biff, its not my fault your mother died. And I feel bad for you. But I’m not responsible for you. I’m not your baby-sitter.”
We’re all sitting around on the steps sort of eaves-dropping. Its hard not to when two people are having a loud confrontation a few feet from we’re you’re sitting. But suddenly it all became clear, what had happened to Biff. He’d been living with his mother all these years. That’s how he’d been getting over. But she had died recently and Biff had lost his place. And now he was on the verge of losing all his stuff. Biff’s entire trip was in the process of collapsing right in front of our eyes. And instead of trying to deal with it rationally, Biff had been appealing to God for some kind of miracle to save him. A miracle that apparently was not forthcoming.
And then it turned violent. Biff grabs back at Jamey’s shoulders, and they’re sort of grappling back and forth like they’re sumo-wrestling, and its a very precarious situation because they’re at the top of the marble steps and its a long fall to the bottom with many potentially cracked skulls and bones in between. So now we’re all trying to intervene, separate them, keep them from killing eachother. Hank Woodhead — this sort of sour, petulant street person — is enflaming the situation with his caustic remarks: “Would you two fools fuck off!! You’re messing with my buzz!!” Etc. So now its a three-way fight.
Finally, Jamey has had enough. He storms back down the steps to the plaza, saying over his shoulder: “I mean it, Biff. Get your stuff or its GONE!”
Unfortunately for Jamey, this guy named K.O. is waiting for Jamey on the plaza. K.O.’s trip, basically, was, he liked to needle people. Then when they got in his face and challenged him, he’d knock them out with one punch. I’d seen him do it to three different people already. K.O. was this stocky half-black, half-white guy with bleached blonde hair and a punch like Joe Frazier. Anyways, he started needling and mocking Jamey, who was already mad as a hornet and in no mood to be fucked with. So he got in K.O.’s face and — BOOM! — K.O. knocked him out with one punch to the forehead. Jamey is lying on his back seeing stars. And there’s like a crowd of hundred people surrounding him. This sort of mob scene. All the people that had been hanging out at Hate Camp. Its like live street theatre and we’re all the audience to this weird drama.
Then this street weasel makes a grab for Jamey’s bike. Figures Jamey is out of it so he can get away with stealing it. The cobwebs are just starting to clear in Jamey’s brain, he sees the weasel grabbing his bike, so Jamey, still lying on the ground, grabs the front end of the bike. So the two of them are tugging back and forth like a tug-of-war. Finally, Jamey manages to pull the bike to him, though one of the metal parts of the bike slices into the side of his cheek in the process, so now he’s bleeding. Jamey, still in a daze, manages to get on his bike and stagger off towards the Avenue.
About 20 minutes later Jamey comes storming back to the campus with about 10 of his friends. Seeking vengeance. I’m not sure Jamey even remembered who had knocked him out, it had all happened so fast. But he spots Hank Woodhead and now they’re jawing back and forth. And by this time I had had enough of all the violent scenes, so I grabbed Hank (who I sort of liked) and steered him off to Kip’s and treated him to a beer at the bar, mostly just to get him off the scene. “Jesus Christ, every time I open my mouth these days, somebody wants to beat my ass!” whines Hank.
Anyways, that was the night when the whole scene kind of peaked for me. The “9-11” World Trade Center attack would happen about a month later. And the easy-going, light-hearted Berkeley street scene seemed to get darker and grimmer after that. It was like the party was over. And this dark cloud descended on America. People on the street scene started dying, ODing on drugs, suicides, etc. Hank would be found passed out in a coma in an Oakland crackhouse and he ended up a vegetable. Biff finally stopped raving and quietly accepted his fate, sleeping in alley ways off University Ave. And Hate Man finally retired the drum scene some time around 2006. The end.