JUST A SHOT AWAY by Saul Austerlitz: a goddamn book review



I don’t know if there’s anything new to say about Altamont and the Rolling Stones that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before. But I couldn’t find anything else decent to read at the library.

One interesting tidbit. Meredith Hunter — the 18 year old Berkeley high kid who ended up getting stomped by the Hell’s Angels — surely mis-played that one. His girlfriend wanted to go home before the Stones came on. She had seen more than enough violence from the Angels and wanted to call it a night. And the couple they had come with had already left. But Hunter wanted to stick it out. He went back to his car to get a gun he kept in there to “scare off the Hell’s Angels,” in his words. Now anybody that thinks one guy with a gun is going to “scare off” an army of Hell’s Angels is either nuts or suicidal.

There were multiple reasons why Altamont went wrong. Probably the biggest reason was the “Woodstock myth.” This big myth that came out of Woodstock. That in spite of the rain and the massive overload of people and the equally massive shortage of every kind of supplies, the concert still worked because of the magic of hippie peace and love and psychedelic good vibes. In fact, Woodstock could have ended up as just a big a disaster as Altamont if the two promoters — who had never even put on a concert before — hadn’t realized the potential disaster they were facing. And started writing out checks left and right for hundreds of thousands of dollars to stave off — and just barely — all the desperate problems they were facing one after another.

THAT’S what saved Woodstock. Not hippie good vibes.

And it took the two promoters decades before they were finally able to work themselves out of debt from the Woodstock debacle.

You can even hear Jagger on stage — as the Angels are slaughtering people — appealing to hippie good vibes to save the day. “Brothers and sisters if we’re all one then let’s show it.” Unfortunately the Hell’s Angels didn’t get a contact high from Mick’s rap.

For the genesis of the Altamont tragedy you have to go back about 4 years to the idiot Ken Kesey. It’s hard to know what Ken Kesey was thinking — or if “thinking” is even the operative word to describe the processes that were going on in Ken Kesey’s brain — when he invited the Hell’s Angels to take part in his his Acid Tests. But to “invite” the likes of the Hell’s Angels into your world makes about as much sense as inviting a pack of sharks to a feeding frenzy.

Keep in mind, back in The Sixties, a certain faction of the hippie counterculture had a rather romanticized view of the Hell’s Angels. They looked at the Angels as outlaws (as opposed to criminals), righteous rebels and free spirits who were rebelling against the uptight mainstream American culture. Sort of Jack Kerouacs on motorcycles. . . . And an ivory tower intellectual like Kesey (which is what he was at that point) had even more of a delusional view of the Hell’s Angels, and of “the streets” in general. And Ken Kesey — as one of the great vain/glorious proselytizers of LSD — also wanted to use the Hell’s Angels as an example of the great spiritually transformative powers of LSD. Why, LSD could even transform those cro-magnon cavemen like the Hell’s Angels into mystic shamans. . . . Well . . Not quite..
From Kesey, the Hell’s Angels were able to inveigle their way into the Grateful Dead’s scene. And the Dead were too much passive go-with-the-flow hippies to stand up to the Hell’s Angels (as well as being scared of them). . . And from there it was a short step to Altamont. . . People criticize the Rolling Stones for the long wait before they finally took the stage — which added greatly to the ugly mood at the time. And many chalked this up to the Stones ego, wanting to wait for nightfall to make for a really groovy backdrop to their “Gimme Shelter” movie. In fact, the long break between bands was because the Grateful Dead — who were slotted to play during that period — chickened out and refused to play. The only band to do so. . . Crosby, Still, Nash and Young (who were performing as a personal favor to Jerry Garcia who asked them to play at the festival) had the balls to take the stage. Even though Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane had previously been knocked out be a Hell’s Angel, and the bands on stage were just as vulnerable to violence as the people in the crowd. . . Let’s just say it wasn’t the Grateful Dead’s finest hour, even as they were as much responsible for the Hell’s Angles being at Altamont as anybody. The Grateful Dead were the ones who recommended the Angels work security to the Stones in the first place, after all..

Overall the book is a pretty good read with some new tidbits of information on a well-worn story. Like, George Lucas — who later went on to do Star Wars — was part of the film crew at Altamont. And Chip Monck — the guy who built the 3-foot tall stage on a day’s notice and also was one of the stars at Woodstock — was the last victim of the violence at Altamont. The day after the show when they’re packing up Monck tried to prevent the Hell’s Angels from stealing the Rolling Stones’s rug that they used to cover the stage and got whacked in the face with a pool cue, losing most of his front teeth. And in a hilarious aside, the San Francisco Examiner gave a glowing front-page review of the show the next day. “300,000 SAY IT WITH MUSIC,” blared the headlines, and they likened the peaceful good vibes that allegedly abounded at the show to a Woodstock West. Ha ha. There’s some first-rate reporting for you!

The book goes into more detail about the life of Meredith Hunter than most of the other accounts. His mother was black and suffered from serious mental problems. His father was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian who left when Hunter was 1, never to return. Hunter was mostly raised by his older sister. Hunter got locked up in juvenile hall for the first time when he was 11 and spent much of his teen years in and out of juvie — mostly for burglary and petty crimes. He was high on methamphetamines at Altamount and his autopsy revealed fresh track marks on his arms — which might explain his overly confident manner towards the Hell’s Angels.

In another twist it turned out Marty Balin was actually long-time friends with the Hell’s Angel — Animal — who knocked him out. But after Altamont the Jefferson Airplane severed all ties with the Angels. Jerry Garcia however continued to be friends with the Angels and kept on hiring them to work security at his shows.

The book seems pretty well researched, aside from one glaring error. The author claims it was Jorma Kaukonen who angrily confronted the Angels from the stage after Marty Balin got knocked out. When it was famously the other Airplane guitarist, Paul Kantner, in one of the more dramatic scenes in the GIMME SHELTER movie.

The book also confirms a long-standing rumor that the Angels put out a contract on Mick Jagger’s life (long denied by Sonny Barger: “If the Angels had wanted Jagger dead he wouldn’t be walking on the earth right now.”). The author claims there were two bungled assassination attempts on Jagger’s life. And that Jagger ultimately paid the Angels $50,000 to get them off his back (which covered the legal fees of the Angel who stabbed Hunter — he ended up acquitted by the way.

After the show Keith Richards was the most furious at Rock Scully, the Grateful Dead’s manager. Scully had visited the Stones in London as an emissary of the Dead. And in between smoking joints and snorts of Nembutal with Richards, Scully had recommended the Angels for security. “If Rock Scully don’t know any more about things like that, man, to think the Angels are — what did he say? Honor and dignity?” Richards fumed. “Yeah man he’s just a childish romantic. The Hell’s Angels are homicidal maniacs and should all be in jail!!”





The best concert I ever went to


Its impossible to pick the best concert I ever went to.  Because I’ve been to so many great concerts.  And they were great for so many different reasons.  So it’s impossible to compare them.  The Watkins Glenn Festival (Grateful Dead, the Band, Allman Bros.) in 1973.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1974.  David Bowie “Diamond Dogs tour” in 1975.  Randy California and Spirit in 1975.  Fear at the Elite Club in 1982 . . . Just to name a few off the top of my head.

But the Sex Pistols show in San Francisco in 1978 really stands out, if only for the historical factor.  Not just because it was their final show before they broke up.  But because that tour ushered in the Punk Rock movement as a cultural force.  And also because, for the first time, it was somebody (Johnny Rotten) of my age (20) and my generation (high school class of 1974) that was up there on that stage.  https://acidheroes.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/the-sex-pistols/

Before that it had pretty much been an endless succession of ’60s retreads.  The Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Starship, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, on and on.  The ’60s cast a long shadow on my generation.   Especially in the fields of the arts and media — writing, music, punditry, etc.  There was a log-jam clogged up by the sheer bulk that was the ’60s generation.  They had gotten in there first, hogged up all the good positions, and my generation was left scrambling for whatever crumbs were left over.  It would be like that all throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

A typical example is a ’70s phenomenon like the TV comedy show  “Saturday Night Live.” A ’70s show, yes, but mostly starring John Belushi and all those guys — ’60s generation retreads, all.  And just as typical, when the original cast finally burned out and were replaced by comedians from the next generation, they would be lambasted and compared unfavorably with the “innovative” and “cutting edge” humor of the ’60s comedians.

It would be like that through my entire twenties.  This failure to live up to the greatness that was “the ’60s.”  The ’60s generation had gotten the ball rolling,  launching the revolution, expanding our consciousness, burning their bras and saving the environment.  Why, they had practically eradicated racism and brought about social justice.  But it was because of all the losers of my generation that the whole grand thing had sputtered out and collapsed.

The acid was always purer in the ’60s.  The pot was always stronger.  The love was always groovier.  And  the political activism was always more righteous (why, they burned their draft cards and stopped that war, man!!). By 1980 my generation had even been slurred with the derogatory term “yuppies.” In contrast to the  righteous “hippies” who were selfless in their devotion to creating a beautiful new society, curing the world of racism and sexism, as well as greed and world hunger, in between loving mother earth.  As compared to those greedy and self-centered “yuppies” who not only couldn’t care less about creating a better world of love and perfect harmony.  They just wanted to plug into the corrupt capitalist system like parasites, and exploit it for their own grubby personal gain.  Man!  We were the narcissistic “me generation.”  As opposed to the ’60s generation that I suppose saw themselves as the “we generation.”  Their altruism and all-round goodness knew no bounds.  At least according to the endless press releases they kept issuing attesting to the greatness that was themselves.

Even today,  you could fill entire libraries with nothing but the memoirs from the members of the ’60s generation.  Reminiscing fondly on those incredible days. Their heroic struggles, their incredible innovations that were nothing short of stunning in their brilliance compared to the dirtclods of the generations that preceded them and followed them.  Followed by the final chapter that detailed their stints in various re-hab centers where they heroically fought to avoid the dismal fate of self-destruction that had destroyed so many others from their lame-ass generation.  Followed by the up-lifting epilogue where we’re giving the opportunity to learn the many great lessons that the ’60s generation has to offer us.  The end.

So yeah, when Johnny Rotten hit that stage with his mockery and vitriol and sneering  at the pompous excesses that defined the ’60s, I could only think: Yeah!  About time!



Life is a mirage


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.





588828I first came to Berkeley in the summer of 1974.  I had just graduated from high school, age 17, so I decided to hitch-hike cross-country from New Jersey to California to visit my older sister and her hippie boyfriend who were living in Berkeley at the time.  They were living on Benvenue Avenue, just a couple blocks from where Patty Hearst was living with her boyfriend right before she was kidnapped by the SLA.

It took me about 5 rides to get to Chicago.  And then this long-haired hick from Kentucky gave me a ride all the rest of the way to Berkeley.  The hick from Kentucky spoke with a deep, southern drawl.  “I’m goin’ to Loz Angel-EEEZ to git’ me a job as a radio disc jockey!” he said, in a voice like Jethro Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies.  I sounded possible, but unlikely.

I distinctly remember as we were riding through the salt flats of Utah, they announced on the radio that Richard Nixon had just resigned from the Presidency.  Somehow that seemed symbolic.  Like I was taking my first steps out into the real world of America, and America as I had known it had just changed into something completely different.

 1167488_706875095996703_2016167045_o.jpgI distinctly remember hitting Telegraph Avenue for the first time.  We were tooling down the Avenue in his station wagon and I was amazed to see all these hippie street vendors lined up on both sides of the street, selling their hippie wares.  In fact, the whole city seemed like wall-to-wall hippies.  A town full of hippies!   Berkeley:  “The town that time had forgotten.”  It was like slipping into a time warp, or an alternate dimension of reality.

The Kentucky  hick stuck his head out the window while he was driving down Telegraph, and his tongue was practically hanging out of his mouth drooling like a cartoon character as he exclaimed:  “HOT DAMN!  Wouldja’ lookit’ all them hippie chicks with no bra-SSEIRES on their TITTIES!!”

I thanked the hick from Kentucky for the ride, grabbed my frame backpack, and plunged into Berkeley for the first time.  This sea of hippies.Twenty years later, when I, myself, had become a Telegraph street vendor, I’d often think back to those first moments in Berkeley in the summer of 1974.  And I’d see some young kid hitting the Ave for the first time and I’d feel like I was in some kind of strange time loop.

I spent about 30 years living in Berkeley.   Near the end it started getting really weird.  Like I could see ghosts  on every single block. I couldn’t go anywhere in the town of Berkeley without remembering some weird scene that I’d gone through  at that spot, years and years ago.  I’d walk by the Amherst Hotel on Shattuck, and I’d remember knocking on the front door in 2006, finding out that my friend Linda had just died. . .   Then I’d look across the street at the movie theater and remember when Duncan and I had put together a big art exhibit there back in 1994 . . . Every block was like that. Like an endless acid flashback.


 In 2010, at age 54, I started working as a bottle-and-can recycler.  It was grueling work, but it kept a wad of bills in my pocket.   One afternoon I was pushing my shopping cart full of cans down University Avenue and I passed the apartment building I had lived in for 13 years.  I had first moved in there in 1982.  As I stared across the street at the front steps of the apartment building, I could almost see my 26 year old self walking in that front door for the first time in 1982. . .    Then I watched my 54 year old reflection in the windows of all the stores as I trudged down University with my shopping cart full of cans. . .

It got to be like that.  Ghosts every where I went.

There was a period of years in the ’90s where I almost felt like I embodied the best of Berkeley.  That I was some kind of Berkeley icon, even.  I had the long, hippie hair, and the neatly-trimmed beard.  And I had these round, dark John Lennon shades that I used to wear.  And when the sun hit the shades just right you could see these rainbow-colored peace signs on the lenses.  I was doing this hip, underground, Berkeley-esque comic strip at the time that was appearing every day in a local Berkeley newspaper.  So it was like I was projecting my aura all across the town.  And I was co-publishing a photo calendar about the Telegraph street characters that was a local hit.  And I was getting interviewed by all these newspapers, and radio stations, and TV stations.  Different art groups were offering me thousands of dollars in grants to produce my latest artistic projects.  And art galleries were displaying my stuff at their exhibits.  So it was a heady period.  Sometimes I would even secretly crow to myself:  “I dominate Telegraph Avenue!”  Even though, in the back of my mind, I always knew that Telegraph — and the streets in general — always dominated you in the end.


The whole Telegraph scene seemed like a magical, bohemian circus back then.  And the town of Berkeley generally seemed proud of it, and celebrated its zany, quirky, eccentric charm.  So it was a bit of a shock to me around 1999, when all the local newspapers  started writing headline articles about; “What’s Wrong With Telegraph Avenue?”  And the same people who had been celebrating me just 10 years ago, now seemed to be blaming me.  Like it was my fault that there were all these “bums” and “street people” that were ruining their nice, little shopping district.  Suddenly, I had come to embody all that was bad about Berkeley.

Life is like that, I guess.  Endless loops and time warps.   And ghosts.  Plenty of those.



Drugs, drugs and drugs

(Originally published February 18, 2005)

The Berkeley street scene is just getting crazier and crazier. The drug of choice these days is crystal meth, washed down with cheap malt liquor. Crystal meth is cheap, it’s plentiful, and it’s deadly.  It short-circuits the mind in record time. That’s what we want, isn’t it? Is it that our minds are such a burden we want to shut it off by any means? Crystal meth deranges the mind.  It’s not like the speed of the old days, which was mostly just a body drug. You’d get this high-powered, vaguely euphoric buzz, like you’d just drank 10 cups of coffee with no jitters, just pure, smooth energy, which is what we always want, right? More energy. Of course, 10 hours later the j-j-j-jitters would hit, and after two days with no sleep you’d crash like a motherfucker; end up sitting on the sidewalk like a piece of cement for about a week. This dulled out, sanded down thing.  But that was the speed of old.

Today’s crystal meth — I don’t know if they’re mixing it different or what, god only knows what kinda’ lethal chemicals they slip in the mix — but today’s crystal meth is more of head drug. It goes right to your head, and to your soul even. You hallucinate — and not just from the sleep-deprivation like the days of old. Crystal meth is sort of like a bad acid trip; it’s sort of “spiritual” but it takes you to this eerie occult kind of realm. From just beyond the swirling cacophony of swelling street noises you hear this eerie celestial chorus, like haunted angels sweetly singing off in the distance.

One night, in the midst of my own moronic speed binge, I tossed a soda can into the garbage can. This guy sitting on the steps said to me “Hey, you should recycle the can.” I started to respond when I realized their was nobody there, it was just a shadow on the steps. I had hallucinated the whole thing.

After four days without sleeping, I finally crashed. When I woke up 4 hours later, I laid there on my bunk and it was like I was listening to a radio broadcast of this disc jockey on the radio talking about me. It was clear as a bell. Only there was no radio on!  The voice was coming from my own brain. But it was more like my brain was picking up a radio signal from some other dimension of reality. I laid there for ten minutes listening to the hallucinatory radio broadcast in rapt fascination. I’ve heard about crazy people who “hear voices.” Who knows what that meth stuff does to the chemicals of your brain? I mean, normal so-called reality is weird enough, ain’t it?

Anyway, after just a couple months of minor league bingeing, I had a certified nervous breakdown. I’d walk down the street weeping to myself. The littlest thing could set me off. I snapped to my so-called senses in the nick of time. I’ve been pretty much clean and sober for several months now.

Others aren’t so lucky. Legendary speed freak Jizzy Smith has finally snapped. He used to shoot up a big shot of speed and then rant and rave and hurk and jerk for hours on a stretch. But then, the next day he’d come down. Now, he’s out there in the ozone all the time. Tonight he was on the steps of the campus raving at the top of his lungs “THIRTY FIVE YEARS IS THE OPTIMAL YEAR FOR MOTHERFUCKERS! LET THE ELECTORAL GO TO PRISON I ALREADY DID MY TIME! COCKSUCKERS DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO EAT! LET THEM MAKE THEIR OWN BABIES!” On and on.

“I remember when you used to be able to have a normal, rational  conversation with Jizzy,” said this one street chick. “And now he is just GONE.”

Jizzy got high one time too many, and now he’s not going to come down. His brains are permanently scrambled. And that’s sad.

Down the Ave, all the street people are huddled under the awning of Amoeba Records trying to keep out of the rain. This fat, crazy chick keeps fucking with everybody. She grabbed at my head as I passed by. Finally, the other bums ran her off the scene with a derisive chorus of “QUACK QUACK QUACK!” Sort of like pigeons pecking at the pariah of the pack. This young ne’er-do-well gave her a hard kick in the ass for good measure to send her on her way. Then the ne’er-do-well vented his energy by going berserk on a bicycle locked to a pole, kicking it and stomping it into a pile of twisted metal. Typical. All these useless street people flopped out on the sidewalk with nothing to do, nowhere to go, no place to put their energy, except into trouble.

Ten years ago, there was still a remnant of the “hippie/counterculture” vibe to the Berkeley street scene. Kind Rainbow hippie brothers and sisters looking to expand their consciousness with pot and acid, to groove with the cosmos. It was all bullshit I guess, but at least they believed in SOMETHING even if it was false. Too bad that turned out to be such a dead end. Today’s street people believe in nothing. They come to Berkeley looking for nothing but drugs and free food. Which at least is real, but what the fuck. They are mostly the product of broken homes or no homes. Walking down Telegraph Avenue is like walking through a gauntlet from hell. Panhandlers and fuckers and nuts invade your space with every step.  Like I always used to say:  “We had a better class of bums back in my day!”  Ha ha.

Earlier, I passed this one street person, and his dog on a leash lunged after me as I walked by, barking and flashing his fangs and straining to reach me. It’s hideous. I know these streets weren’t designed to be LIVED ON. Yet here are all these people living on them nonetheless. Most of them, they add nothing to the community, and take away with their mere presence, which is mostly noxious. They are the equivalent of trash on the sidewalk that you’d want hauled off to the dump. That’s the EFFECT. And yet they’re human beings, too, and they’re caught in the crunch of a bad situation that mostly is not of their own making. And their lives are so miserable already, the last thing I want to do is heap more abuse on them. Christ, you can’t help but feel sympathetic, even as another part of you is disgusted, even as another part of you says: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I was flopped out alongside them once already. And I’m a prime candidate to end up back there again.

And yet, when I first hit the Berkeley street scene back in 1993, there was more of a bohemian and intellectual, and even magical, flair to the scene. One of the guys I hung out with, the legendary Hate Man, was a former reporter for the New York Times. Another guy, Scooter, had graduated from Yale and was doing post-graduate work in Rabbinical Studies (in other words, not your average, typical homeless street people). And there was a crew of brilliant young painters who were also part of the scene, regularly creating colorful chalk-drawing masterpieces on the sidewalk. And brilliant musicians and poets would regularly join us during our nightly drum circles and jam along with us. Beautiful young hippie and punk chicks would dance along. My friend Duncan would document it all with his camera. And I’d record the music with my 4-track. The scene reminded me of Andy Warhol’s whacky art scene in the ’60s. After midnight, the city landscape was like our own private playground for our weird art happenings. It was like a movable piece of performance art. Street theater of the bizarre. I was proud to say I was “from the streets.”

But nowadays, there’s nothing left but the dregs. And me. It’s like being surrounded by a camp of drunken, feuding hillbillies. Am I just waxing nostalgic here? “Back in MY day we had a better class of bums.” Maybe. But maybe not.

It all started to change around 1996 when the first wave of Gutter Punk kids flopped out on the sidewalk. They mostly didn’t do ANYTHING.  They’d just sort of sit there all day like they were waiting for something to happen.

Nowadays, the mob of street people flopped out on the sidewalk is growing bigger every day. Like a plague, or a growing cancer. This dark shadow that is descending on the land, growing darker every year, like some ominous sign of a future that will very soon be here among us.



Damn hippies

I have one oddly related Fugs story from that period. I was in the 7th grade in 1968 and a friend of mine, Doug, who was like the first hippie in our class (a 7th grade hippie if you can imagine) actually brought a Fugs album to class one day. It came with this flipbook where you flipped the pages and the Fugs stripped off their clothes until they were completely naked all the way down to their pubic hairs. Which was pretty shocking back in 1968. Well, when our teacher Mr Pitz got a load of that Fugs album poor Doug ended up getting suspended for 2 weeks. Doug would go down in the history of our class as the first — but by no means the last — casualty of that great cultural war that was “the ’60s.” Later that summer Doug would be the only one from our class to go to Woodstock. Shortly after he dropped out of school never to be seen again. Always wonder what happened to ole’ Doug . . . But yeah, I can relate personally to the issues being discussed on the Buckley show.

Acid Part 6

(Originally published in 2004)

In 1970, age 13, I started my freshman year of high school. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died that year, and it was supposed to be symbolic of something.  Meanwhile all the cool kids in my class mysteriously started parting their hair in the middle, as if they had received a secret signal from somewhere. And the first long-haired hippie types were seen loping around the streets of suburban New Jersey.

Well, I did in fact end up stumbling upon one of those marihuana cigarettes with the twisted ends, and I did in fact smoke it. I got stoned for the first time at age 16 at a big free Carol King concert in Central Park in New York City. I went there with two of my high school buddies, Red and Brian. We were sitting in this big field with about a half a million people sprawled out on the grass. Somebody handed me a joint and the rest is history.

I looked up from the circle of stoners and Hari Krishnas in orange skirts and shaved heads and wispy ponytails were dancing around me clasping finger cymbals. Hippies, gypsies, and Greenwich Village street freaks with golden rings pierced through their noses all drifted past my stoned-out eyeballs. It was as if that Fugs album cover from the 7th grade had somehow come to life. Carol King was bleating out her songs from a tiny stage a million miles away on the other side of the field like looking through the opposite end of a telescope. Thus began my 30-year experiment with mind-altering drugs.

Later, still very stoned, we tried to order some hotdogs from an Italian hot dog vendor. The vendor kept asking “You wanna mustard or onion?” To which Brian, in his stoned-out bewilderment (I think it was his first time too) kept answering “Munions.” The angry vendor cursed Brian out left and right as Brian stood there with his mouth open in confusion, as Red and I rolled on the sidewalk in fits of stoned-out laughter. And “munions” became an inside joke amongst our stoner crew for the rest of the school year.

In 1973 I saw the Grateful Dead for the first time with my older sister and her hippie boyfriend in this big old barn of a basketball arena in Philadelphia with clouds of pot smoke hanging from the ceiling. I remember this ancient hippie who was sitting in front of me wearing a fringed leather jacket and a bandana around his forehead and ancient owl eyes that seemed to stare off into another dimension. It was shocking in 1973 to see an entire auditorium filled with long-haired hippie freaks. I had finally stumbled onto the epicenter of the mysterious “drug culture” I had read so much about. It was like being initiated into an ancient secret society that had existed parallel to normal society since the beginning of time. The crowd cheered the loudest when the Dead sang the line “…riding that train, high on cocaine” from their hit song “Casey Jones.”

Later that summer, Brian, Red and I went to the big outdoor Watkins Glen rock festival featuring the Band, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. Almost a million people showed up, it was the biggest concert of all time, even bigger than Woodstock. On the other hand, nobody would call us The Watkins Glen Generation, so it wasn’t bigger than Woodstock in that sense.

In 1974 I started my fabulous senior year of high school, and John Lennon had his last hit song before he disappeared from view, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” Somehow, it symbolized the difference between the ’60s and the ’70s: we were no longer soaring to the heavens, but just trying to get high in the muck. I managed to worm my way into the big high school stoner scene, I started hanging out with Donna and Suzie Q, the two biggest stoner chicks in our class, or “the two air-heads” as they were affectionately known. We spent a lot of time in the parking lot cutting class and getting stoned, then staggering around in the hallways. Donna was a total pot freak, the first of a long line of pot freaks I would meet over the years. Pot was her thing. She owned every kind of pot paraphernalia; pipes and bongs and 20 different kinds of rolling papers and roach clips and stones and do-hickies, you name it she had it. Donna was dedicated to being on the cutting edge of all  the latest technological advancements in the pot-smoking field. You wouldn’t have thought it would be that difficult to take a weed and turn it into smoke, but there you go. One day in 1974 Donna whipped out the first issue of High Times we had ever seen–if memory serves me the cover featured an Eskimo woman holding a joint. It was vaguely shocking to see our secret, and very much illegal, pot-smoking habit on the cover of a mainstream looking magazine.

Anyway, pot really tripped me out, it seemed to stimulate my intellect, I would see things in a deeper way, things I hadn’t noticed before. And I would FEEL things intensely. At first I thought I could “see through” people, see through the surface of all the high school games, to a deeper psychological reality. Then the pot turned on me and I’d get hideously self-conscious; I’d sit there in the back of the class bug-eyed, thinking that everyone could tell that I was stoned out of my gourd.

Anyway, one afternoon as we were smoking pot on “the path” behind the school Donna asked me if I wanted to try some acid  she had just scored.

“Acid?” I asked. “What’s it do to you?”

“It like makes you see trippy colors and stuff,” said Donna. “You hallucinate, like when you move your hand you see tracers and stuff.” Donna had tried acid two or three times before, so she was the expert. Well, that sounded pretty cool, seeing tracers and shit, and I had always been curious about LSD ever since I read that Beatles book back when I was 11-years-old. I wanted to see the “tangerine trees” and “marmalade skies” for myself.  I had always been fascinated by all things “’60s” reading anything I could get my hands on on the subject. LSD seemed like the missing piece that would explain all the “love” that the hippies had experienced at Woodstock, and maybe even unlock the mystery that was “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vidda.” I wanted to take the Magic Carpet Ride that all the rock stars had been singing about. Donna handed me two hits of blotter acid. “You chew it up like bubble gum then you swallow it,” she explained. We sat there on the bleachers behind the high school and waited.

“ANGELHEADED HIPSTER: A Life of Jack Kerouac”: a book review

I found a great bio of Jack Kerouac the other day, “Angelheaded Hipster” by Steve Turner. I found it, appropriately enough, sitting on the curb by the road.

Like a lot of people, I identified with Kerouac. But maybe for different reasons than most. Like me, he was a counterculture figure who largely repudiated the counterculture later in life. He found both Leary and Kesey noxious. He blamed Kesey for “ruining” Neil Cassady. And he so over-powered Leary when they did acid together that Leary had his first bad trip. And he described Alan Watts as a cocktail party phony in “Dharma Bums.”

Among the surprising revelations in the book, when Kerouac died he had only $91 to his name. All of his books were out of print, and he was a somewhat disgraced figure in his hometown of Lowell. “People in Lowell never recommended that kids read his books because they were always afraid that youth would try to emulate him,” said Lowell resident Reginald Ouellette. And Kerouac himself was disgusted by the youth who were emulating him. So he existed in an ironic state during his last years. One of his final pieces of writing was published in the Miami Herald entitled “After Me, The Deluge” an anti-hippie, anti-Communist diatribe.

The Gary Snyder character, Japhy Ryder, exuberantly described the up-coming counterculture in “Dharma Bums.” “Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it’ll be guys like us that can start the thing. Think of millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country and hitchhiking and bringing the word down to everybody.” One wonders what Gary Snyder thinks of the millions of lost homeless people tramping across the country today with their backpacks on their backs.

It was during the 60s, when he could have consolidated his position as an elder statesman of the counterculture and basked in all the glory — as his contemporary Allen Ginsberg certainly did — that Kerouac turned his back on the whole lot of them. In 1969, the year of his death, he wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune in which he attempted to answer the question, “What does the author of ‘On the Road’ think of the hippie, the drop-out, the war protester, the alienated radical?”

“I’ve got to figure out,” he responded, “how I could possibly spawn Jerry Rubin, Mitchell Goodman, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg and other warm human beings from the ghettos who say they suffered no less than the Puerto Ricans in their barrios and the blacks in their Big and Little Harlems, and all because I wrote a matter-of-fact account of true adventure on the road (hardly an agitational propaganda account) featuring an ex-cowhand and ex-footballer driving across the continent north, northwest, midwest and southland looking for lost fathers, odd jobs, good times, and girls and winding up on the railroad.”

How indeed? How indeed did this book, “On the Road,” inspire all that and much more?

“I read ‘On the Road’ in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” said Bob Dylan.

According to college friends, John Lennon avidly read “On the Road” in 1960 and was always talking about “this Beat Generation thing.” Royston Ellis, who was known at the time as England’s Beat poet, claims he’s the one who convinced Lennon to change the spelling from “Beetles” to “Beatles.” So yeah, Kerouac’s influence is far-reaching.

Who knows why. He was just the guy who was situated at that exact juncture where history is made. Perhaps he would have been remembered as little more than a tragic fag icon of the ’50s if not for the spiritual yearning he injected into his best work. “His novels all resound with the question, ‘How can you make sense of life in the face of suffering and death?'” wrote steve Turner. How indeed.

All I know is, I have one remaining goal in my life.  When I die I want to have $92 in my pocket.  That way I can say I was more successful than Kerouac.