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Awakenings Abounding – Part 2

September 14, 2012

Belying my initial impression, Chuck fit into our bunch of young, uninitiated intelligentsia just fine. In fact, he crashed at our one bedroom apartment that first Tuesday night of bottomless spaghetti and never again went to his dorm room back on the campus, except to empty it out and set up house in a small studio in our building. This move giving rise to much consternation on the part of his suburban parents, some fifty miles away.

Chuck rounded out our little group quite well. Steve and I were from Almaden, me being the unfocused, naive firebrand, Steve was the dispassionate, almost autistic, rationalist, believing nearly everything could be determined reasonably through research and logic, even if the research wasn’t always the most credible and when the logic wasn’t all that sound. Butch was the almost child-like innocent whose father was the battering ram retired Air Force colonel that had moved his teen-aged son and daughter from a military base out in the desert to the high-society correctness of the Almaden Country Club.

Chuck, on the other hand was, in way, a San Francisco sophisticate, while, still, having a well earned set of street smarts, the one thing that none of us others had in any way, shape or form. Though continuously aware of his poverty driven childhood, the result a young, frail family being abandon by its biological father very early on, he was strictly disciplined and incredibly well informed regarding modern and avante guard art, all sorts of art. Growing up, and even with us, he spent an enormous amount of time in the library and had a great many subscriptions to esoteric art magazines from all over the world. When Chuck spoke, we listened. The one area of modern life where we were all experts and where Chuck was an absolute neophyte was in realm of the automobile. At the age of 20, Chuck had yet to own a car and was terrified of driving. Up in the City, all he needed was a pocket full of change and the “Muni” took him wherever he wanted to go. At that time, the only form of public transit I knew was my elementary school bus, and even while using it, I was already out driving tractors all over the place.

Over the nearly ten years that this motley crew maintained some level of cohesion, other guys and girls came and went but this bunch endured and explored, tested and stumbled our way through the complex and totally new task of reaching maturity in the psychedelic 60s and 70s in the cultural eruption of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Often times when we’d get back to the one bedroom apartment, the physical “central base” for the bunch of us, there would be several large format art books laying on the coffee table. These were the study material that Chuck would retrieve from the school library and leave for us to expand our minds. Though it was never really ever spoke of out loud, we were supposed to familiarize ourselves with the work and people contained therein. And, laying all over the three or four separate apartments in that building that we rented, were these little booklets about four or five inches square, with only one picture and one name on the cover. They were mini art books: Early Picasso, Van Gogh, Miro, Modigliani, Braque, Matisse, Late Picasso, etc., etc. These would have been picked up at garage sales, second hand stores, dusty book shops, wherever. They might have a page or two of text near the front of the book, sketching out the artist’s work and life, but only a brief sketch. The only other text would be the titles of the each work and maybe the year in which it was produced.

After a time, when we were done with school work, after a few shots of whiskey or a couple of hits on a joint, Chuck would thumb through these little books and use the images like flash cards, he’d prompt us and prod us and enlighten us. Sometimes, when we had enough energy, we would have our own little group discussions, comparing one artist with another, or discussing how we could see how one of them might have developed and changed his style, we’d sort out all sorts of things.

It didn’t take long before we were doing the same sort of thing with music and literature. We were becoming more and more submerged in the art, often cutting classes to do our own thing, not the school thing. I found myself spending way too many lost hours in the the “listening rooms” in the library. Listening rooms were these small rooms with sound proofing and very thick doors with large, double pane windows. All they contained were two or three chairs, a turntable and a small table for taking notes. When twelve inch vinyl platters were about the only way they recorded quality music, you would go through the thousands of platters (or albums as they were actually called) which the library owned and had cataloged. You would take several of the albums into these little rooms for some very serious and private listing. At least you weren’t blasting out the neighbors.

I would listen to Rock and Roll at home, in the apartment, with the guys and a little booze to relax me. I went to the listening rooms to listen to classical guitar (especially Andres Segovia, Gregorian chants and chamber music, “little” chamber music as I would call it, where there it was no more than a quartet or quintet making the classical music. I would space out in those rooms for four or five hours at a time, becoming almost hypnotized or catatonic by this intimate, special music. I never took anyone into these sessions, they were just for me. I guess some folks would call it a form of meditation.

And during this very special time, there were endless other things happening all around us. The San Francisco rock and rollers who would play for free in Golden Gate Park, started migrating down to San Jose and it was quite often that we, too, would be listening to the newest and most innovative music in the world, for free, in parks, on sports fields, even off the back of flat bed trucks. Some of the art history professors were so popular and relevant that the school actually mounted speakers to the outside of their lecture rooms so that the over flow crowds could at least hear their lectures, if not seeing all of the visual aids. While the political activity that is so well documented, did occur during this era, but not so well known and touted was the explosion of art and culture was just so pervasive, thorough and everywhere. The simple handbill to announce the performance of a local band became the famous Fillmore posters which are still bought and sold almost fifty years later, when so many of the bands, themselves, have so long ago expired. “Head shops” remembered mainly for their drug paraphernalia, were outlets for hand-made jewelry, clothes and even books musical instruments, usually made by local artisans, not big, corporate manufacturers. For as many head shops as there were, there were also sandal makers, silkscreen printers and specialty book shops, all attempting to support and expand this new “alternative culture” we were all trying to grasp.

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Fillmore Posters

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However, the alternatives actually went a lot further than I believe a lot of modern people are aware of. Up on Alpine Road in Palo Alto, behind Stanford University, I used to attend a weekly class called something like “Intentional Community.” It was held in the cottage of a Stanford T.A. (teaching assistant) working on his Ph. D., and his wife. We studied several different utopian and dystoian scenarios like those presented in Brave New World, 1984 and the earlier concept presented by Eugene Zamyatin in his novel “We” (1921). This class and this cottage were part of an alternative eduction effort called the “Mid-Peninsula Free University.” It was an experiment to develop a higher education institution which had no central, authoritarian campus, but it was spread throughout households and storefronts in the Stanford area and extending up and down the San Francisco Peninsula. While it was initially conceived to be a purely educational entity, it eventually became a mechanism for political extremists which I had little interest in.

Another alternative culture effort that required more professionalism than your neighborhood headshop was the Whole Earth Catalog. This was a wonderful conglomeration of ideas, products and people, sometimes described in short paragraphs, sometimes in complex articles, oftentimes with pictures and illustrations and printed on some hearty newsprint with a classic cover. The whole thing was very over-sized and was a pain to carry without rolling it up or something. It was the most varied, entertaining and informative collection of alternative culture stuff that you are ever going to see. Rather than me trying to describe it, check it out as an e-book:

http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/34324111?access_key=key-2l7v3gwzjt3s9b5eczor

But, be hip, kick back and wait patiently, it takes a while to download, but it’s worth it.

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The first Whole Earth cover

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Our world, here, in the Bay Area, was just over flowing with alternatives, experiments, reinventions and hairy, wild-ass schemes in the 1960s and 70s, and along with all the new stuff, came the controversy, “what’s so wrong with the old stuff?” But, I found my self wearying of the activity, the constant challenge of trying the newest thing. I started getting more selective and found myself yearning for simplicity and calmness. I was tiring of the sidewalks and stoplights in San Jose and, surprisingly, I found myself gravitating towards the musicians I was meeting, not the writers of prose and poetry like I would have thought, but the music makers.  It was as though perhaps I had been born into their brotherhood, but never to be an active music maker myself. While I’ve never been one to make friends easily, with musicians there was never any such a problem, connecting was so natural and comfortable, so easily immediate.  Maybe it had something to do with my meditations in the listening rooms.

Some gravity was pulling me up to the redwood covered mountains, slowly, imperceptibly, surely. The few years of excitement and exploration had opened my eyes, but the hustle and bustle of the college community, and the loss of the farmlands to the new suburban, tract house reality left me with no home to go back to. Without thinking it in words, some part of me wanted to be a solitary man sometimes.

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